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


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.

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

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water