You may think driver­less cars are the best thing, but GOR­DON HALL hates the idea

The Witness - Wheels - - FRONT PAGE -

WHEN Bertha Benz loaded her teenaged sons into hus­band Karl’s patent auto-wa­gen on Au­gust 5, 1888, and drove it from their home in Mannheim to visit her mother in Pforzheim, 106 kilo­me­tres away, she started a revo­lu­tion that would re­shape his­tory.

Un­til then, the mo­torised cart was just a tech­ni­cal cu­rios­ity but Frau Benz demon­strated its so­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Peo­ple sat up and took no­tice — the me­chan­i­cal gad­get was ac­tu­ally use­ful — and Karl Benz’s in­ven­tion con­quered the world.

After that, cars be­came ob­jects of ro­mance, ad­ven­ture, war, greed, ma­nip­u­la­tion and so­cial sta­tus.

They were raced, driven across in­hos­pitable con­ti­nents, floated on wa­ter, armed and ar­moured, jumped through hoops of fire, en­larged, short­ened, re­shaped and some­times fit­ted with im­pos­si­bly big en­gines.

They car­ried young and old, the sick and in­jured, ran guns and moon­shine, saw death and new life, nur­tured bud­ding ro­mances and caused the ends of oth­ers.

They granted mo­bil­ity and in­de­pen­dence to mil­lions who could af­ford them and to bil­lions who couldn’t, but had enough to pay for the use of some­one else’s.

Own­ers took pride in be­ing able to ex­er­cise free will and en­joy the priv­i­lege of be­ing able to drive them. The love af­fair lasted over 120 years but it is now fad­ing.

Driv­ing has be­come a chore, roads are too crowded, it takes almost as long to get where you’re go­ing as the time you plan to spend there, and users have more press­ing things to do.

In a world that’s too “busy” and friend­ships many but tran­sient, con­nec­tiv­ity, con­nect­ed­ness and multi-task­ing are all that con­cern peo­ple.

Cars ceased be­ing straight­for­ward me­chan­i­cal de­vices, con­trolled by their driv­ers, years ago. To­day’s over-patented auto-wa­gen is filled with elec­tronic gad­getry to over­come pi­lots’ in­com­pe­tence, stu­pid­ity or lack of in­ter­est.

They com­pen­sate when you drive too fast, brake too sharply, wan­der out of line, don’t look where you’re go­ing, drive while fa­tigued, for­get common cour­tesy or follow too closely. They obey road signs and look for an­i­mals be­hind trees, cy­clists about to fall off their bikes and pedes­tri­ans ready to wan­der across your path. They even park them­selves. Some don’t need you there at the time.

Pro­mot­ers be­lieve that within 10 years, cars will drive them­selves to places of work and en­ter­tain­ment. Dur­ing the jour­ney you will catch up with cor­re­spon­dence, do of­fice work, or en­gage in elec­tronic chat­ter with un­met ac­quain­tances on so­cial me­dia. If that gets bor­ing, you can in-stream mu­sic or video pro­gram­ming while kick­ing back with a Moun­tain Dew.

You won’t even have to face for­ward while do­ing so. A Mercedes-Benz re­search ve­hi­cle, the F015, is a lux­u­ri­ous elec­tronic won­der­land fur­nished in wal­nut and white Nappa leather and fit­ted with four swiv­el­ling lounge chairs. De­signed to be com­pletely au­ton­o­mous, it can be man­u­ally over­rid­den should its op­er­a­tor so choose.

Such drones won’t be able to col­lide with each other, go too fast, hold up traf­fic or dis­obey rules. They will be pre-pro­grammed to find wanted free­way ex­its in time (no dan­ger­ous lane jumping) and should the “driver” be sus­pected of un­law­ful ac­tiv­ity, such as theft of the pod in ques­tion, po­lice will be able to take con­trol and stop it safely.

Ques­tions like “who is re­spon­si­ble if a col­li­sion oc­curs”, or “how do you pre­vent hack­ers from hi­jack­ing it?” are at present unan­swered. They aren’t con­sid­ered im­por­tant right now be­cause progress must pre­vail — the nanny state de­mands it.

The fright­en­ing part is that the great brain­washed be­lieve it’s a grand idea — look at read­ers’ com­ments be­low on­line ar­ti­cles about au­ton­o­mous cars, or sur­veys claim­ing that most driv­ers would wel­come them. A re­cent poll of 1 350 UK driv­ers in­di­cated that 59,1% would buy a self-driv­ing car, for ex­am­ple. That sam­ple is too small to be mean­ing­ful, but it does show the ef­fects of pre­con­di­tion­ing.

But here’s a thought: in­stead of mol­ly­cod­dling, get back to ba­sics. Driv­ers need to en­joy in­de­pen­dence re­spon­si­bly. Slow your life down. Look, think, be sen­si­ble and learn all nec­es­sary driv­ing skills. Con­cen­trate. Elec­tronic chat­ter can wait.

Au­thor­i­ties must re­turn to ba­sic polic­ing. Be seen, be re­spected, ticket mi­nor trans­gres­sions and be ruth­less — with un­road­wor­thy ve­hi­cles and dan­ger­ous driv­ing of all kinds — all the time.

Bertha Benz left a won­der­ful legacy. Don’t squan­der it.

• What do you think, can ro­bot cars save the day? E-mail your views to al­wyn.viljoen@wit­ Con­trib­u­tors stand a chance to go on a test drive around the Hes­keth race track with one of the Wheels team in a car that needs your in­puts.

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