Alice Jones mulls the pros and cons of driverless cars

I was at a party recently, and someone was telling me about the Next Big Thing in online, super-high-convenience shopping. It was a fun party. Anyway, the next big thing, apparently, is mail-order shaving kits, posted every month so you never run out of razor blades again.

It's huge in America, with companies such as ShaveMob and Dollar Shave Club vying for a slice of a booming business. And if it's huge in America, that means it will probably be huge everywhere soon.

It's a good idea, I guess. Men and women shave. It is a bore to buy the necessaries and even more of a bore to run out unexpectedly. But it's not as though razor blades are hard to come by - every supermarket, chemist and dairy sells them.

When did our lives become so hectic that a detour via the toiletries aisle is a step too far? When did we become so unused to doing things ourselves?

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The thought arose again this week with reports about driverless cars. One should always approach any announcement about a revolution on the roads with caution - the Sinclair C5 never quite caused the silent bottlenecks it promised for Britain - but this one looks as if it might happen.

According to the British Business Secretary, Vince Cable, the first driverless cars could be droning around Birmingham's Spaghetti Junction by January.

Google's self-driving vehicles have already covered 1,126,500km in American trials. And where Google leads, humanity follows.

The advantages of this leap in technology - and it is a potentially life-changing, city-redefining leap - are various. Driverless cars use 360-degree sensors, antennae and GPS to travel, feeding information back to a central computer which controls steering, braking and accelerating.

This means, in theory, there will be no more dangerous driving or speeding. The roads will become safer as tired, drunk or texting drivers are rendered powerless in their own pod. People who are unable to drive for reasons of age or ill-health will be liberated.

Thanks to the superior efficiency of machines, congestion will ease; emissions will be reduced. And, crucially, the time-wasting traffic jam will become a thing of the past. Going hands-free will free up time.

Despite this, a survey by Churchill Insurance (not a disinterested party - in a world without drivers, who causes third-party damage?) found this week that 56 per cent of British adults would not buy a driverless car. Malfunction is the main fear, and a legitimate one for anyone who has had a computer crash or a phone signal cut out on them.
More than half of those questioned said they did not like the idea of a lack of human control - again understandable, though many are likely to have flown on an aeroplane without a thought.

Will Google be an empathetic driver? Will it pull over when it hears a siren or sees a driver in distress, slow down well before the old lady steps on to the crossing or swerve to avoid the neighbour's cat even when the rules of the road say not to?

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It is odd to think of a generation of teenagers growing up without the embarrassment of crunching a gear or bunny-hopping down the street.

A computer will smooth that rite of passage for them, and in time a skill will disappear.
Some people like driving, too. They take pleasure in the open road and the rare calm of a journey or a commute free from phone calls.

If, as looks likely, the driverless revolution arrives, what will we do with all that time we once spent tapping the steering wheel in motorway snarl-ups? Send a lot more emails, I expect.

-Independent