Vic­to­ria Coren Mitchell I’m re­ally not a petrol­head...

... but the thought hought of driver­lessss cars and thehe sur­ren­der of free­dom fill l me with gloom

The Observer - - COMMENT -

God bless the women of Saudi Ara­bia and their ex­cite­ment about a royal de­cree al­low­ing them to hold driv­ing li­cences at last.

As we sit in traf­fic jams, fum­ing about in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­lays and un­end­ing road­works, terrible ra­dio playlists, the ut­ter monotony and hell of it all, we should think of our sis­ters in the desert who see only the free­dom, power and joy.

Mind you, their petrol’s a lot cheaper.

On my Ra­dio 4 show Women Talk­ing About Cars , bril­liant women in­clud­ing Olivia Col­man and Jo Brand ( both of whom have rally- driv­ing li­cences), Dawn French (who had a TVR Cer­bera made to mea­sure), Ger­maine Greer (who’s driven across Aus­tralia, alone, in a Holden) and Clau­dia Win­kle­man (who barely knows the dif­fer­ence be­tween a car and a horse) have talked about the par­tic­u­lar role, for women, of a ma­chine that is both a refuge and an es­cape, a place of safety and a tool for ad­ven­ture.

I’ve found it in­cred­i­bly mov­ing, over the last few days, to read those same thoughts wob­bled through the prism of Saudi Ara­bian pa­tri­archy: women just like us, but pris­on­ers of their husbands and fa­thers, say­ing ex­actly the same things about what the car means.

Manal al- Sharif, who or­gan­ised a driv­ing protest for which she was ar­rested sev­eral times, wrote in her book Dar­ing to Drive : “I took a deep breath, sat down in­side the car and put my hands on the steer­ing wheel. Al­though I was en­closed, at that mo­ment, I felt like one of my fa­ther’s song­birds, let out of its cage and fly­ing around the room.”

“This is a huge step for women,” 26-year-old Sul­tana al- Saud of Riyadh told the Guardian af­ter the royal de­cree. “It’s nice to see women be­hind the wheel; metaphor­i­cally, I be­lieve it’s like her lead­ing her life now.”

I was think­ing about this a few days ago when I spoke at a con­fer­ence about driver­less cars, or­gan­ised by road safety char­ity IAMRoad­S­mart and the RAC Foun­da­tion.

The room was full of skilled re­searchers in the field (and some very im­pres­sive fe­male en­gi­neers – not enough, but some!), many of whom prob­a­bly found me a ridicu­lous lud­dite. But I am ab­so­lutely not in favour of the driver­less car.

If my car drove it­self, what would I do in it? Just sit there read­ing the pa­per, drink­ing tea, wait­ing to ar­rive by magic at my des­ti­na­tion? We’ve al­ready got that op­tion. It’s called the train. It’s got ta­bles and a loo and you can walk about. I love trains, but driv­ing (done with skill and care) ex­ists along­side as some­thing dif­fer­ent: a lib­er­at­ing, ther­a­peu­tic ac­tiv­ity.

What would hap­pen to that feel­ing of power and self-gov­er­nance if a com­puter was driv­ing? What is al­ready hap­pen­ing to the joy­ful sense of free­dom, with GPS track­ing, num­ber plate recog­ni­tion soft­ware and those park­ing me­ters where you can’t insert coins but must phone to log your lo­ca­tion in a vast cen­tral data­base?

I con­cede that the roads will prob­a­bly be safer when all cars are driver­less. Yet I can’t help won­der­ing whether fewer deaths but all of them caused by com­puter will prove bet­ter for the hu­man psy­che than more deaths caused by hu­man er­ror. It seems a bit chill­ing to me. Death by code.

Be­sides, “safer” and “bet­ter” are not ex­actly the same thing. It’s com­pli­cated. Peo­ple die when they’re play­ing golf, so should you ban golf? Yes. But for dif­fer­ent rea­sons en­tirely.

Peo­ple slice their fin­gers off while mak­ing salad; that doesn’t make ready­made sal­ads “bet­ter”. At least three peo­ple a year are killed by flow­er­pots. Yet we hap­pily keep flow­er­pots le­gal.

You have to draw a line some­where; safest of all would be no cars, no transport and ev­ery­one in prison just in case. For me, driver­less cars draw the line in the wrong place. Tech­nol­ogy is crowd­ing us out of our own lives.

I was once driv­ing across Amer­ica with my friend Char­lie and it was his turn to tip the “car jockey” who brought our rented Hyundai out from the garage. Char­lie is the sort of En­glish­man who finds direct tip­ping in­cred­i­bly em­bar­rass­ing.

Flus­tered and ner­vous, in­ca­pable of look­ing any­where but the ground, Char­lie reached into the wrong pocket and shook into the valet’s hand all the money we had left for the rest of our hol­i­day. When we stopped for lunch in Cas­tro­ville (“the ar­ti­choke cen­tre of the world”), we dis­cov­ered we had one crum­pled $10 bill to take us through the next five days.

“I thought the valet seemed sur­prised,” said Char­lie gloomily. “He must have thought I was an ec­cen­tric mil­lion­aire.”

But that’s the stuff of life, isn’t it? There we were in Cas­tro­ville, the ar­ti­choke cen­tre of the world. There’s a gi­ant ar­ti­choke sculp­ture in the mid­dle of town. We went to a cafe and or­dered the ar­ti­choke salad. With our 10 bucks, we could af­ford one ar­ti­choke salad to share. And the ar­ti­choke was tinned.

But I still laugh re­mem­ber­ing it. And if our driver­less ro­bot car had driven it­self round to the ho­tel door, there would have been no valet to tip, no hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and none of it would have hap­pened. It’s the mess of real life. And that’s the prob­lem with tech­nol­ogy and de­vel­op­ment: you want to avoid some of the mess of real life, but not all of it.

Pre­vi­ously, I was a bit em­bar­rassed by my fear of driver­less cars. But that changed when I saw the de­light and hope that’s flow­er­ing for Saudi women, as they dream of tak­ing the wheel and hit­ting the open road.

Now imag­ine they’re be­ing driven by a com­puter, with satel­lites log­ging their jour­ney and the hus­band watch­ing on a we­b­cam.

We should never give con­trol away lightly. We should be able to do some things with no­body look­ing. Be­ware turn­ing cars into prisons – they’re meant to be keys.

Vic­tory: cam­paigner Manal al-Sharif.

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