friday-rant
Technology Planning and Analysis

Rant: How the nerds ruined cars

This year’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas was colonised by the car companies and the machine-to-machine crowd.

People are queuing for hours just to get a look at the screens inside the models on the BMW stand. Apparently, the majority of today’s car enthusiasts are more concerned about interfaces, screen sizes and apps than old fashioned concepts like engine size, acceleration and road handling. They’d rather burn disk space than burn rubber. Never mind the big end, check the big data. When car designers talk about raw horsepower, they’re less likely to be talking about the thrust of a V8 engine’s pistons than the MIPS in a parallel processor.

You don’t have to be Jeremy Clarkson to find this depressing. It really does expose the reduced circumstances of the car industry. It would be inaccurate to say the automobile has been emasculated – driving isn’t per se a masculine activity. My wife is a far more aggressive driver than me, and when she’s at the wheel she refuses to stop and ask for directions. Surely cars defy all gender stereotypes. Besides, cars were arguably the greatest enablers of female emancipation in post-war Britain. By giving them more freedom of movement they gave women much great bargaining power in all these aspects of their lives, according to The Car in British Society.

No, the car has not been emasculated, defenestrated or neutered. It’s been nerdulated. This is the techies’ revenge for all those Ford Focus drivers who cut them up as they were cycling to their programming jobs. Finally, after years of encircling these beasts and binding them in red tape and code, they have pacified them. Now the once mighty automobile must play second fiddle to the software that rules it.

The next logical step in this process is to oust the driver. Driverless cars are already being built by Google, so doubtless they will report who you are in the car with, why, where and when at every opportunity. As you travel I’m sure you will be bombarded with unwanted messages and have all your privacy ruthlessly hijacked in the name of the great God of Advertising.

Which is a shame, because the driverless car, if run properly, could be an enormous boon to us all. In Britain, for example, we are about to squander billions on building high-speed rail links between London and the North and then populating them with even more expensive rolling stock. However, thanks to Google cars, it’s now possible to bombard passengers with morale sapping, pre-recorded messages for hundreds of miles - without investing a penny in a railway system.

Privacy-invading, time-stealing adverts aside, these driverless cars could be a brilliant invention. Especially if they could daisy-chain them together, into virtual carriages, which would form a single unified train of cars that could travel together from, say, the road outside London’s Euston Station to Manchester Piccadilly (stopping on the way at Birmingham New Street, where you could change for a Google Train to Bristol Parkway and Cardiff).

There are a few design questions still to be resolved though. It’s here I would like the developers to forget their cycling heritage and think like a car driver. For example, what are these Google cars going to do when they stop at a traffic light? Are they going to initiate a mobile call, surf the web or send a text message? That is the immediate instinct of the majority of human car drivers, especially if they are at the front of the queue.

Will the robotic car drivers hog the middle lane of the motorway? It’s important that they do because if a motorway driver shows any kind of weakness (or courtesy to others, as these lily-livered simpletons would call it) they will be squeezed into the slower lanes, never to emerge. Having asserted a car’s position in the middle lane of the motorway, the developers need to take anther precaution. Pootling along at a constant speed, and at a constant distance from the car in front, is one of the most soporific experiences known to man – or indeed machine. Once driverless cars hit the motorways it is only a matter of time before one of them is lulled into an electronic coma at the wheel and causes a multiple pile-up. How will the manufacturers legislate for this?

Other people’s crashes is another predictable set of incidents that Google’s driverless cards must make contingency plans for. Whenever there is a pile-up, it is only natural for all the travellers in every other car to slow down and take a look. Maybe even grab some pictures – you never know your luck. If it’s a slow news day a tabloid newspaper might pay you top rates for a picture. Under these circumstances, if the driverless car goes steaming past the incident, without even slowing down, the passengers are going to be hopping mad. If one of them is an opportunistic paralegal, Google could be facing a writ for damages, hurt feelings and lost earnings.

I do hope Google and the other driverless car makers are thinking this all through.

Still, I remain optimistic that one day in the not too distant future, four driverless cars will drive across Europe, getting into all kinds of hilarious (but obviously pre planned) scrapes, all of which will be captured perfectly by high definition cameras. That way, the spirit of Top Gear will be preserved forever.

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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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