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Last week, Google unveiled its latest invention: a self-driving car. I thought this had happened already. My perception that the pace of change is terrifying must be causing me to over-compensate. Haven’t DLR ghost trains been depositing people under Canary Wharf for the best part of 25 years (as those commuters probably wouldn’t describe it)? And I rather assumed that Google Street View images were acquired by an automatic process. But maybe they were taken by an elderly couple pootling around in a Morris Traveller – the hat-wearing driver pulling over every few yards while his wife fumbles with her box Brownie (as they used to say in the blitz).
Illustration by David Foldvari.
“Remember to wind it on this time, Agnes, for God’s sake. We’re not going round the Sheffield ring road a third time.”
My perception of technological change is further confused by all the 80s films that depicted computers talking to each other in sinister and insecure networks – which I didn’t realise till later didn’t really happen till later. It meant that, when the current cyber-yoke was lowered on to our collective shoulders, I’d long lived with the sensation that it was already there.
Anyway, Google has finally brought out a prototype of a driverless car – which can’t even fly, unbelievably. And if you think there’s probably one of those machines that can make every imaginable sort of food fitted into the glove compartment, you can think again. This is decades after the launch of the SodaStream, I might add. Honestly, I don’t know what these people are doing with their days – it’s like living in the dark ages.
Nevertheless, some luddites will be up in arms about this tardy innovation, largely because you don’t need arms to work it. There’s no steering wheel, gear lever or handbrake, just a stop/go button which you could probably press with your nose. It works out where it’s going and how not to bump into things using sensors and the internet.
Removing the direct human input into driving is bound to cause as many safety concerns as when we dispensed with the services of the horse a century ago. Perhaps these vehicles should be preceded on the public highway by a robot waving a red flag (which, as an unmanned vehicle itself, would also have to be preceded by a robot waving a red flag). But Ron Medford, the Google team’s safety director, swears the new cars will save lives. “I think it has the potential to be the most important safety technology that the auto industry has ever seen,” he said.
He may be right. More than a million people die in traffic accidents every year and it’s plausible that computer malfunction would struggle to match that quantity of human error. Not that human error would be eradicated – the driverless cars are, after all, designed by humans. But the chances of the computer code controlling the new vehicles being written by people who are also late, falling asleep, on the phone, drunk, screaming at a family member or looking for a CD on the floor, are relatively slight.
When things do go wrong, though, it’ll unsettle us all the more. A pile-up caused by one bloke accidentally spilling scalding coffee on his lap is tragic but doesn’t invite us to question the hubristic nature of progress. But a computer virus causing a car suddenly to brake during rush hour would make us feel far more frightened and impotent, like we’d messed with forces we can’t control.
That’s why people obsess over the comparatively tiny number of aeroplane accidents, while allowing the murderous attrition of the roads to continue unmarked. By flying, we feel we’re doing something unnatural and over-mighty, like Icarus – we nervously strap ourselves in, cursing the presumptuous lust for commerce, cultural enrichment or sunshine that tricked us into lying so placidly in the palm of a capricious giant. Behind the wheel of a car, meanwhile, we enjoy the illusion of control – the sense that, if human error kills us, it’ll be our own and not a stranger’s. Of course, that isn’t necessarily the case if the Lexus driver in front just doused his balls in a flat white.
As a non-driver, I spurn this illusion, and welcome the self-driving car. Its rise would retrospectively transform the indolence and nervousness that has prevented me from getting a driving licence into foresight. I must have intuited which way society was going – technologically, at any rate. I may have wasted hours learning grammar and punctuation rules now rendered as irrelevant as heraldry, but at least I didn’t bother much with the highway code.
I don’t want to be in control – I want to be able to criticise whoever is. Whether in a car, plane, bus or train, I am content to sit back and enjoy the statistical likelihood of survival and the feeling that, if I perish, I’ll do so blamelessly. On some mad level, I think I crave the hollow vindication of dying in a way that’s somebody else’s fault. That’s how much of a carper from the sidelines I am.
Sometimes, in weeks when this column is well received, or I’ve belittled the government particularly crisply on TV, I’ll receive the occasional online compliment from someone who, in the same spirit of cyber-hyperbole that also engenders rape threats, is calling for me to be made prime minister. As with the threats, most of them don’t mean it, and those who do are unhinged. But, grateful though I am for any compliment, the suggestion appals me. I really don’t want to control anything beyond my own central heating – I just want to be able to say ‘I told you so’. Whether it’s turbulence on a transatlantic flight, a taxi-driver’s choice of route or the slow strangulation of the NHS, I want others to be culpable.
I thought I was unusual, but May’s elections make me doubt it. There must be millions who have offered strong opinions about Ukip over recent months but cast a vote neither for nor against. The turnout was pitiful. I know it’s fashionable to say that voting doesn’t really change anything (and, certainly, if that’s ever going to be true, it’ll be in local and European elections). But even if you believe that, you surely can’t believe the obverse: that not voting does change things.
I refuse to accept that two-thirds of us are that stupid. It must be that they’re content to drift – to be taken where others want to go. They’d better hope our political class is as competent and benign as Google’s programmers.