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
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.