Brits may be more reluctant than carmakers realise to relinquish the wheel, writes Erin Baker.
Driverless cars have been knocking around for decades. Newsweek magazine carried a wonderful advert featuring a self-driven bubble-top back in 1956. The occupants, a wholesome all-American family of mom, pop, boy and girl, were shown playing a board game around a table while their car followed a central painted line down the highway, with the tag line: "Power companies build for your new electric living."
Yet the technology has been hidden away in the research and development cupboards of most manufacturers. Until now auto executives have occasionally peered in, scratched their heads about liability issues, public perception, the technology's reliability and the infrastructure needed to implement it, then slammed the doors shut in order to think about something more pressing, such as fuel cells. Now that Google has spotted a huge marketing opportunity, however, everyone is suddenly excited again.
The 1956 "new electric living" is finally here, with Government plans to change the Highway Code and clear the way for autonomous car trials on British roads from January. But the nagging question, is: what price the future? We're a nation of petrolheads: we own more than 30 million vehicles between us and buy more convertibles than almost any other European country.
We are home to eight Formula 1 teams, six car-design centres and manufacturing bases for Jaguar, Land Rover, Nissan, Toyota, Mini, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Caterham and more. We have a booming components industry employing 82,000 people in 2350 companies, and more than 700,000 people are employed in the automotive industry here, which turns over about £60 billion ($119 billion) a year. Our summers are filled with motorsport garden parties at Goodwood, Cholmondeley, Syon Park and countless grassroots club events. We enjoy the way a car handles and we love the noise and the smell.
Given all this, is the Government really expecting us to embrace the rented driverless pod? Why would we? So we can free up time to answer yet more emails, take yet more conference calls? The car is one of the few work-free sanctuaries left, now planes and the Tube have introduced Wi-Fi, damn them. Show me an exhausted businessman or mother and I'll show you someone all too happy to sit in a traffic jam on their own, singing at the top of their voice, daydreaming or listening to the shipping forecast. If you want to use your feet less, buy an automatic or use cruise control. If you want to use your arms less, buy a car with automatic windscreen wipers and lane-assist, which takes control of the steering should you venture over the white line without indicating. We already have cars with automatic anti-collision braking systems, and the ability to park themselves.
Also (and this may seem a small point, but it's one that puts me right off) for those of us who suffer from travel sickness, a driverless car is utterly useless. I can't look down to read a paper while in motion without huge waves of nausea, so what am I going to do, twiddle my thumbs?
We know driverless cars are coming whether we like it or not - Jaguar, Volvo, Audi, Nissan and Lexus are all busy on projects. But please, save them for the platooning crossworders, the faceless suited commuters who want to be taken in convoy through the city to their glass offices without a second glance at the road, and the strange folk for whom driving really is a burden. Save them for the idiots who can't spot an approaching or developing hazard in the road, drive too close to the car in front to react in time, speed past the school crossing and hog the middle lane. Leave those of us who relish our skills behind the wheel to practise our manual dexterity after a day of computer manoeuvres at work. Let us crunch our gears in peace.