‘’I Spy’ used to be a game I played in cars. In the future, it will be a game my car will play on me’
WHY DO WE LOVE CARS? FOR ME, as a kid in the Sydney northern beaches, surfing offered recreation, swimming fun, and tennis an outlet for sporting frustrations. Cars offered freedom.
I loved the style. Before I even considered an industrial object’s ‘design’, I knew there was something achingly sensual about tightly surfaced sheet metal. I knew an E-Type and a DS were beautiful. And that a Holden Ute wasn’t.
Then there’s the technology. Cars are the most astonishingly complex pieces of technology that most of us will ever own. (Far more than anything from the socalled ‘tech’ industry.) It’s partly because of the versatility of cars. Engineers need to understand everything from aerodynamics to thermodynamics, from crash safety to the cornering grip of the compounds in tyres. They work with materials varying from rubbers, from new-generation steels, to rhodium and platinum in the catalytic converter, to aluminium, to brass, to glass, to carbonfibre, to plastics. They are electronically as complex as any machine.
Cars are extraordinary. And they’re getting more technically amazing every year.
The other reason I love cars is because I love to drive. You’re in control of a lump of metal, an engine more powerful than a stud of racehorses, a human creation that breathes and growls and provides constant response, more alive than any other mechanical object. And you can go anywhere you want, when you want.
The driving is often as enjoyable as the journey. You don’t drive down a B-road just to go somewhere. You do it because it’s fun.
Now, of course, driving is under threat. Within 20 to 30 years, there could be no driving at all. Autonomous cars are all the rage. Even BMW, creators of the ‘ultimate driving machine’, enthuse about tomorrow’s cars with cabins more like relaxing living rooms than driver-focused cockpits.
It’s welcome in many ways, of course. It will make roads safer. It will speed up traffic flow. It will give mobility to the old, the young, the sick and the weak. To 90 per cent of drivers, who would rather surf the Web than surf the blacktop, autonomous cars will be welcome.
Yet, to misquote Ian Dury, there are reasons to be fearful. Tomorrow’s cars may well be dehumanised digital droids that cheerlessly but efficiently transport us from A to B, while Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Uber, etc, guide us, track us, analyse our journey, and use it to personalise an advert on our car’s connected touchscreen or on our iPhone (‘Gavin, do we have some deals for you in Betws-y-Coed!’).
Some may find this helpful customer service. Others, like me, find it intrusive salesmanship. Will the police, the DVLA, CIA, MI5, etc, also be monitoring us?
Autonomous cars will turn people (drivers) into valuable machine-readable data. Just as Facebook, Google and Twitter do now. They’ll know where we go, whom we visit, where we stop. And, of course, this data trail — and autonomous driving in general — is potentially hackable.
‘I Spy’ used to be a game I played in cars. In the future, it will be a ‘game’ my car will play on me.
Google is not developing driverless cars to be philanthropic; it wants to dominate the digital driverless landscape. There is no more likely to be a Google production car than a Ford smartphone. Car manufacture yields poor returns. But the high definition digital mapping that autonomous cars will demand, the sophisticated software necessary for ‘robot driving’, the information yielded on our journeys as companies ‘get to know customers better’: that’s all worth big money.
Moreover, as the Web giants begin to dominate the auto industry, where does that leave the traditional car manufacturers who employ far more people and contribute much more to society (not least by paying their fair share of taxes)? Will Silicon Valley emasculate them, as it’s done to other creative industries? Facebook and Google have colossal advert revenues, while contributing nothing to creative content.
Either way, big brother is going to be following us in our robot cars. For respite, the only solution may be to buy an old car. Then go to track days and drive feral, celebrating your humanity, your skill, your freedom, and that nobody is watching you.