Stephen Bayley: Oi, you in the Audi: when did you last see your dipstick?

Open the bonnet of a modern car and it will baffle a Nasa technocrat

Share

It is now a very long time since the beautiful, mechanical carburettor and Faraday-era spark plug were replaced by computerised engine management systems as the heart of a motor car. Today we use computer code not GCSE physics as operating principles. While on my first car you opened the bonnet to find a Pythagorean diagram of simple mechanics, now you open the bonnet and it would baffle a Nasa technocrat. Modern cars, like modern televisions, have no user-serviceable parts. Today you see a few aerospace unions, a beautiful carbon fibre moulding and no evidence of an oily, puffing contraption whatsoever. I know this: just last week my own brand new hi-tech car failed to start. I called the recovery service. A man arrived, dressed as if to service the space shuttle, took a look, scratched his head and admitted: "It's no good, guv, I haven't got a clue."

It is now a very long time since the beautiful, mechanical carburettor and Faraday-era spark plug were replaced by computerised engine management systems as the heart of a motor car. Today we use computer code not GCSE physics as operating principles. While on my first car you opened the bonnet to find a Pythagorean diagram of simple mechanics, now you open the bonnet and it would baffle a Nasa technocrat. Modern cars, like modern televisions, have no user-serviceable parts. Today you see a few aerospace unions, a beautiful carbon fibre moulding and no evidence of an oily, puffing contraption whatsoever. I know this: just last week my own brand new hi-tech car failed to start. I called the recovery service. A man arrived, dressed as if to service the space shuttle, took a look, scratched his head and admitted: "It's no good, guv, I haven't got a clue."

In its perverse way, the car has civilised us all. A small, but significant, step in mankind's long march towards intellectualisation was made in 1996 when a theoretical component was introduced into the driving test. Granted, the theories involved were pretty basic. Candidates were not required to calculate the brake mean efficiency pressure of a two-stroke diesel nor digitise the load-paths in a torque tube. No, they were merely expected to have a rudimentary grasp of the Highway Code and exhibit a primitive sense of good road manners, but it was a start.

And progress is accelerating. Aspiring drivers are now required to demonstrate technical knowledge as well as psycho-motor skills. As part of an exciting European directive to harmonise driving styles, it has become necessary to display competence of the opposable thumb variety. Candidates are now required to demonstrate theoretical competence removing a dipstick and expertise at checking hydraulic fluid or coolant levels. I say "theoretical" because no one will actually be required to dabble with corrosive alkaloids or scalding water. Instead, it is pure science, but not, as John Bridge, assistant chief driving examiner of the Driving Standards Agency, says, "rocket science". Instead, the level of intellectual attainment aimed for is modest indeed. Another example: "How do you check the brake lights ?" To which the official answer is: "Reverse towards a reflective surface." Ideal vocational training, I would say, for the ambitious ram-raider.

Once you could service a car with a hammer and a screwdriver, but in today's most advanced cars, the Audi A2, for instance, you cannot even gain access to the engine. Alas, the boffins at the Driving Standards Agency seem not to have twigged. In an Audi A2 the engine is effectively a sealed unit and all the fastidious owner can do is check levels of this and that in remote reservoirs. Yet our bureaucrats think we will all be whipping out the plugs come Sunday, baking them in the oven and sprucing them with a wire brush. So in a sense it is infinitely touching, elegiac even, that in Britain, this most technologically illiterate of countries, we are just reaching a national awareness of mechanics at precisely the moment everyone else is consigning oily rags and spanners to the jerrycan of history.

This brave educational imperative points elsewhere: things have become dull since the triumph of Congestion Charging. What we need is a further competitive element to add sauce to life on the streets : we need to legislate for pit stops in the Congestion Zone and if Jeremy cannot change his Micra's wheels in 5.4 seconds, like the McLaren Grand Prix crew, then we will insist he travels on the bus.

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Time travel: Thomas Cook has been trading since 1841  

A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

Janet Street-Porter
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable