My new driverless Lamborghini will be a pirate of a car with outrageous styling in eye-searingly bilious colours, giving off a powerful whiff of privileged decadence.
It will make no noise because it will be blamelessly electric. And it will be slow.
Being a well-behaved robot, it will maintain the speed limit and observe good road manners, which means I can surrender my personal responsibilities as a driver and have a doze at the wheel.
Or perhaps not. Thankfully, Lamborghini will never make such a car. Lamborghinis are designed to be dangerous handfuls that demand an alert driver wearing earplugs to wrestle their dinosaur bulk through difficult corners.
My new driverless Lamborghini will be a pirate of a car with outrageous styling in eye-searingly bilious colours, giving off a powerful whiff of privileged decadence
A driverless Lamborghini would be as absurd as maintaining a wild-eyed, raven-haired, flamboyant Neapolitan mistress in a scarlet dress slit to the waist, but keeping her locked up and unvisited in a Travelodge. In most things, human contact, a little sweat and tears, are essential.
Which brings me to the Government’s plans, revealed in the Mail yesterday, to legalise driverless cars before the end of the year, far earlier than many had thought possible… or desirable.
Under the ministers’ blueprint, we may check emails and watch TV at the wheel using onboard ‘infotainment’ systems. While distracted, an Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) will usurp command: speed will be limited to 37mph, with the prospect of a jump to 70mph if the scheme does not crash.
Mobile phones and tablets would still be banned — for now — and drivers would have to be in a position to resume control of the car within ten seconds, in case of any problems.
But is it truly progress? Many have concerns. Just this month, two men in a Tesla fitted with ‘autopilot’ technology died after their vehicle crashed and burst into flames in Texas. Another person was killed by an Uber self-driving car in Arizona in 2018. Independent tests showed that Tesla’s safety monitors can be readily defeated.
To me, all this fuss about autonomy is simply the latest chapter in the long history of our on-off flirtation with automation. Fully automated transport systems are not new — but they have rarely overwhelmed the resistance of consumer psychology.
A driverless Lamborghini would be as absurd as maintaining a wild-eyed, raven-haired, flamboyant Neapolitan mistress in a scarlet dress slit to the waist, but keeping her locked up and unvisited in a Travelodge (stock image)
For 40 years, the technology has existed for passenger jets to take off, fly and land without the intervention of this-is-your-captain-speaking. But most airlines refuse to deploy their ‘autoland’ facility because they want to keep their expensive pilots alert and well-practised — not to mention avoid scaring passengers because no one is on the flight deck. With cars, the autonomy discussion is sourced not in progressive scientific research but in the sleazy demands of public relations.
The race to claim the first truly autonomous car to market is the 21st-century equivalent of double overhead camshafts or disc brakes. The first manufacturer to offer drivers the option of waiving their right to human fallibility and becoming, instead, numb cargo with drool running down their chins will have a commercial, if not aesthetic, advantage.
But there are technical and ethical problems not yet solved. First, autonomous cars will be ever more reliant on satnav. The problem here is that, as a matter of safety, GPS will need to be accurate more or less to the millimetre.
At the moment it is nowhere near so finely calibrated, as anyone who has been forced the wrong way up a blind alley while following guidance for Waitrose can testify.
The technology to achieve such accuracy exists, but it is U.S. Government property and I cannot see the 5th Airborne Division ceding its advantage to my need to do the weekly shop with military precision.
Then there is the question of who is responsible for the conduct of a driverless car. The driver who is not driving? The software designer? The manufacturer?
If my autonomous Lamborghini sees a cockapoo in its path, does it silently swerve on to the pavement at 37mph and risk annihilating pedestrians? Additionally, research has shown that different cultures put different values on different victims: the Chinese notably respect the elderly and an autonomous car programmed in Beijing might prefer, on moral grounds, to collide with schoolchildren rather than grandparents.
Then there is the prospect of ‘Robots run amok!’ headlines. The problem with the universal connectivity autonomous cars demand is that everything can become disconnected. What will happen when someone turns off the GPS? Well, robots will run amok.
To me, all this fuss about autonomy is simply the latest chapter in the long history of our on-off flirtation with automation. Fully automated transport systems are not new — but they have rarely overwhelmed the resistance of consumer psychology (stock image)
Nevertheless, autonomy offers a few significant advantages. Drink-drivers can become drink passengers — but perhaps not if they have to seize the wheel with a few seconds’ notice. The vast areas of modern cities presently sacrificed to parking can be liberated, since autonomous cars will likely be in shared ownership and near-continuously on the move. A fully intelligent car will also have no need of road signs and traffic lights, relying instead on satellite data, so our cities can be cleared of the detritus of nagging commands, compulsory directions, do this, don’t do that, and disfiguring street furniture.
For designers, the opportunities are interesting. The relegation of the human driver from his position of command means the steering wheel need no longer be the car’s equivalent of the high altar in a cathedral. Another focus of attention must be discovered. I am expecting drinks cabinets and pizza ovens on options lists.
But this vision of autonomous nirvana bathed in robotic blue light, like a prestige dishwasher, seems fragile when compared to the substance of what may soon be lost. The hot and greasy car has been mankind’s most ingenious, if destructive, invention. It has enabled economies and enriched cultures, while providing us with measures of beauty, status, prestige and yearning that make the art of the museums and galleries look thin and mute.
And the car is the ultimate analogue experience: it propels you along the road via a series of more-or-less contained explosions, reined in by grinding gears and mechanical brakes.
This is spiritually satisfying stuff. To control it all is no less than an intercourse with a machine: demanding, but exhilarating. Skills are required and judgment is essential.
But the autonomous car will be driving you. It will be very intelligent, but will make us less so.
The poet Heathcote Williams observed that, on viewing a city’s traffic from space, an alien would presume that the intelligent life form is the car, whose orderly behaviour on the roads is impeccably disciplined. It just stops now and again to take on fuel in the form of human passengers, then to expel them when spent.
This is precisely where we will be with the autonomous car. For the advantage of a snooze or fixing a glass of prosecco while checking our emails on the M62, we will have surrendered several distinctive attributes of civilised behaviour, including personal responsibility, fine psychomotor skills and emotional engagement.
What we are seeing here is not the beginning of something new, but the end of something old. We are five minutes to midnight for the automobile. It is idle for man to defend what God abandoned and I feel God abandoned the private car some time ago, suggesting instead that we stay at home.
But before that divine mandate passes, like ALKS, into law, I am going to order a noisy old-school Lamborghini and release my Neapolitan mistress from the chaste confines of the Travelodge.
I suggest you do, too, before such things are made illegal. Or, even worse, automated.