The driverless car puts us on the road to a ‘hands‑free’ world. But do we really want to go?

It seems like a futuristic dream, but the majority of us remain unconvinced

Share

I was at a party recently, and someone was telling me about the Next Big Thing in online, super-high-convenience shopping.

It was a really fun party. Anyway, the next big thing apparently is mail-order shaving kits, posted every month so you never run out of fresh razor blades again. It’s huge in America, with companies such as ShaveMob and Dollar Shave Club vying for a slice of a booming business. And if it’s huge in America, that means it will probably be huge in the UK quite soon.

It’s a good idea, I guess. Lots of men and women shave. It is a bore to buy the necessaries and even more of a bore to run out unexpectedly. But then shops are good too. It is not as though razor blades are hard to come by – every supermarket, chemist and corner shop sells them. When did our lives become so hectic that a detour via the toiletries aisle is a step too far? When did we become so unused to doing things ourselves?

The thought arose again this week with reports that driverless cars will soon hit UK roads. One should always approach any announcement about a revolution on the roads with caution – the Sinclair C5 never quite caused the silent bottlenecks it promised – but this one looks as if it might really happen.

According to the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, the first driverless cars could be droning around Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction by January. Google’s self-driving vehicles have already covered 700,000 trial miles in America. And where Google leads, humanity follows.

As outsourcing pesky, practical matters goes, not having to drive one’s own car is the ultimate – a significant step up from shaving by post. The advantages of this leap – and it is a potentially life-changing, city-redefining leap – are various.

Driverless cars use 360-degree sensors, antennae and GPS to travel, feeding information back to a central computer which controls steering, braking and accelerating. This means, in theory, there will be no more dangerous driving or speeding. The roads will become safer as tired, drunk or texting drivers are rendered powerless in their own pod. People who are unable to drive for reasons of age or ill health will be liberated. Thanks to the superior efficiency of machines, congestion will ease; emissions will be reduced. And, crucially, the time-wasting traffic jam will become a thing of the past. Going hands-free will free up acres of time.

Despite this, a survey by Churchill Insurance (not a disinterested party – in a world without drivers, who causes third-party damage?) found this week that 56 per cent of adults would not buy a driverless car. Malfunction is the main fear, and a legitimate one for anyone who has ever had a computer crash or a phone signal cut out on them.

More than half of those questioned said they did not like the idea of a lack of human control – again understandable, though many of them will likely have flown on an aeroplane or ridden the Docklands Light Railway without a thought. And while it may not be so much of an issue on London’s roads, will Google be an empathetic driver? Will it pull over when it hears a siren or sees a driver in distress, slow down well before the old lady steps on to the zebra crossing or swerve to avoid the neighbour’s cat even when the rules of the road say not to?

There are more existential concerns, too. With big business at the wheel, our every move, preference and change of direction are tracked even more easily. And while no one likes to be a Luddite, it is odd to think of a generation of teenagers growing up without the embarrassment of crunching a gear or bunny-hopping down the street. A computer will smooth that rite of passage for them – and in time a skill will disappear.

Some people like driving, too. They take pleasure in the open road and the absorption in a task – not to mention the rare calm of a journey or a commute where to respond to another’s call is to break the law. If, as looks likely, the driverless revolution arrives, what will we do with all that time we once spent tapping the steering wheel in motorway snarl-ups? Send a lot more emails, I expect.

READ MORE:
Usain Bolt was right about the Commonwealth Games, but we shouldn't blame the organisers
Gaza is too busy burying its children to report on injured owls
A woman’s power is in her laughter – no wonder men are scared enough they want to silence it

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album