How self-driving cars could turn into a nightmare


Would you have enough faith in an autonomous car to read a book while it gets on with the driving?

THE year is 2025. It seems like only yesterday that I read the news about the recall of 1.4 million cars after a group of cyber enthusiasts proved they could hack into the “safety-critical” systems: code for the important stuff that slows you down or steers you away from death.

I thought that would spell the end for driverless vehicles. Imagine being locked inside your car and taken for a terminal joyride into the side of a building. But the transition of control to non-human hands was done so gradually that we hardly noticed it.

Self-parking vehicles seemed innocent enough until new drivers stopped learning how to park for themselves – why bother? And the three-point turn was the next driving skill to be lost.

Therein lies the self-fulfilling prophecy of safety. The more “driver aids” you add to a car, the less engaged and less safe the driver becomes, necessitating further aids and so on, until finally you have complete automation and the driving test is a relic of the past.

Take ABS. Heralded as the greatest breakthrough in car safety since the stop sign, anti-lock braking systems were designed to enable drivers to steer during emergency braking situations. However, the negatives outweighed the positives.

Freed from the minor fright that accompanies skidding tyres, drivers followed each other more closely and braked later for corners under the mistaken belief that the brakes were more effective with a computer in charge. They weren’t, but ABS stayed.

Next, car manufacturers replaced hydraulic powered steering with electric. As any top chef will tell you, a hot soup might burn your mouth, so it’s better to test the temperature using your finger, which is less sensitive. Electric power steering makes the road feel so numb that it’s like driving with your elbows.

All of this was before I became unemployed, of course, along with the millions of other professional drivers. I remember putting one such car through its paces and suddenly discovering that I was departing the Tarmac and heading for a tree. In the old days a gentle judder from the wheel would have signalled the loss of grip before my eyeballs turned into saucers, but not in this car with electric steering.

The funny thing about all those stars who drove the “reasonably priced car” on Top Gear was that they could feel the warnings through the steering wheel, too. Being in touch is what humans do best, unless they’re texting.

Back in 2025, I peer through my Google glasses at the Barista serving me my cortado and automatically filter his Facebook profile; his lifestyle montage proves too intimidating for me to strike up a conversation, so I take my coffee “to go”.

I walk everywhere in the city now because traffic is worse than ever. Who needs parking spaces when you can send your driverless car around the block while you do your shopping? And commuting distances have doubled, with vehicle occupants happy to zone out in their pleasure booths, watching movies or working themselves to death, seemingly losing track of time.
One new model has no windscreen at all, offering instead a curved 3D TV. Our simply evolved brains still struggle to adjust to this wobbling paradise, but the added screen time is apparently worth the gut rot.

As for the driverless taxis, we call them “Johnny Cabs”, like in the movie Total Recall. But it’s not because of the smiling buffoon behind the imaginary steering wheel, but because Johnnies litter the floor; there are no inhibitions aboard a driverless carriage.

When Google introduced the first self-driving cars they were limited little devices, but with no human controls such as a steering wheel or brake pedal to override the robot at the helm they set the precedent and served as the perfect Trojan horse.

These cute robo-cars did only 25mph, and consequently developed an enviable near-zero death rate, other than by boredom. The safety lobby licked its lips and used this as “evidence” to spell out the doom facing those souls with the temerity to insist on driving themselves. These selfish egotists were a danger to the robotic order and had to be saved from themselves.

Self-driving cars found support among environmentalists, too, because linking vehicles together on a motorway using radar and Wifi reduced the energy and fuel wasted by individuals slowing down and speeding up. Occupants could put their feet up, read a book and sip lattes while the robots synced together like a daisy chain.
Traditional carmakers needed sales to stay afloat, whereas Apple and the other tech companies making driverless machines did not. With account balances bigger than most Western governments’ and countless entertainment products on the peripheral market, they could afford to run a loss leader. They undercut the entire insurance sector by self-insuring their machines and within a year the cost of insuring a self-driver went through the roof.

As a result, this is the last year I’ll be able to afford to run my car: a classic Peugeot 205 GTi hot hatch that’s been retro-fitted with an electric motor. It goes like stink and saves the planet but, like me, it’s a dinosaur.

So fit me up with some virtual reality goggles, plug me into a mobility chariot and make me an obese non-thinker like the creatures in Wall-E. I feel certain that the purveyors of all this technology have my best interests at heart, and are not simply interested in harvesting my personal data and knowing my every thought and movement for commercial exploitation. Giving away my personal freedom seems a small price to pay for the enhanced customer service I will receive. -