The driverless road to a robotic life

WHY would anyone want a driverless car? Why would anyone even invent them? The questions have been puzzling me ever since I first heard about this latest bit of techno-trickery, more than a year ago. Talking with friends, their reaction is the same – one suggested that it was “because someone thought it was a good idea,” and another put it even more succinctly, “because they can.” Nobody could see the point and nobody wanted to “drive” one.

Perhaps they will be safer than ordinary vehicles – but I doubt it, because human error can never be discounted and I see no reason to believe that driverless cars will be any less susceptible to the Friday-afternoon syndrome than any other model. And even computers can make mistakes (although they will always be attributed to human actions, of course – a mistake in programming or intentional sabotage). Of course, one may hope they won’t be subject to road rage.

Perhaps they will be more economical or environmentally friendly – certainly there will be no opportunity for the Lewis Hamiltons of the future to hone their skills on a vehicle over which they can have no control. Automatic cars – in which you have no control over the gear changes – are generally less not more fuel-efficient than well-driven manual shift cars, although their supporters will have you believe that their fuel consumption is lower because the car “knows best” which gear it needs.

What driverless cars will definitely do is take the pleasure out of driving. They will remove the possibilities of turning off the main road onto a byway, not to get somewhere quicker but just because it is there and you don’t know where it goes, to find an interesting alternative to the congested motorway, to explore the hidden corners of a city or to follow a meandering coastal road rather than the straight inland dual carriageway, for the sheer enjoyment of the sounds and smells of the sea.

But then, at the risk of appearing to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist, I don’t think driverless cars are intended to make our lives better. Rather, I suspect they are just the latest cleverly disguised exercise in constraining us into ever tighter patterns of regulated behaviour.

I seriously doubt that, given the choice, the majority of men will take to them, because the car is such a symbol of masculinity – think Clarkson, May et al. But they may be more effectively targeted at women, who so often doubt their ability to reverse or parallel park (often because their male partner has told them they are no good at it) and who may be conned into believing the driverless car will be easier, removing the fear of parking on busy city streets and instead allowing them to window shop as the car negotiates the traffic.

My theory is that the driverless car fits snugly within the business “culture” that is strangling creativity and smothering spontaneity. There is no room for originality or independent thought in a world that is dominated by “management,” with the irrestible pressure to balance budgets, beat targets and cut costs.

In a working world in which every minute must be accounted for, with quotas and time-sheets, with relentlessly scheduled “one-to-ones” (what we used to call a “conversation”) when there is actually nothing to say, when zero-hour contracts hold employees in invisible chains, when “conference calls” (at which some senior executive hands down dictats from on high to awestruck middle managers) are timed down to the last second … the idea of a driverless car which can be programmed to take the optimum route in the optimum time is a concept made in Management Heaven.

You might interject that good managers encourage creativity, that staff are urged to “think out of the box” and contribute their ideas. But don’t be fooled. The only thinking that is rewarded is that which leads to more profits, ideally accompanied by “creative” cost cutting. One corporation that owned the paper I used to edit introduced what was called a “profit improvement plan” – otherwise known as PIMPing.

Spontaneity, imagination, independence and original ideas are anathema to the corporate mind. In their Brave New World, the driverless car is one giant step for management-kind. Replace the driver with a robot and you are approaching perfection. No need for salaries, holidays, welfare or pensions. Bigger payouts for the shareholders, bigger bonuses for the directors.

Progress towards the driverless car is another mile down the road to a robotic life.

Fanny Charles