The speedometer on the dashboard points 240km an hour. The landscape swirls by. Vehicles in the lanes next to us seem to stand still. Our car is an Audi A8. The location is the Autobahn in Germany—there are no official speed limits. Then, the navigation system announces in a German female voice that “in 24km there is slow traffic over a stretch of 8km”. When we get there, slow traffic has become non-moving traffic. “There is no alternative route”, she says. So we will have to sit it out. I am on duty for an automotive client. The company’s driver, Rudi, is bringing us from Basel to Stuttgart. He has turned on a radio station that only plays pop music from the 1980s. “Jump” sings Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth while we have come to a standstill. It is a somewhat surreal experience—our speed suddenly tamed by a traffic jam.
Rudi is an experienced driver. But in a couple of years he may no longer be behind the wheel. An autopilot will be. All major automotive companies are working on driverless cars. Even Google has joined the race. Last week, Nissan became the first to give a showroom arrival date, namely 2020. The role of technology in cars is increasing. Nowadays, even a car mirror is not a simple thing but a highly engineered piece of equipment in which the number of digital components is increasing. Driverless cars will mark a high point in the technolofication of cars, turning them from mechanical horse carriages into supercomputers on wheels. But is driverlessness really progress?
It seems an almost heretical question. Once we pass the age of 30, questioning the usefulness of new technology can make us feel “old”. If we adopt the latest thing later than others, we wonder if this is evidence that the slow process of mental ageing culminating in agonizing forms of Alzheimer’s, has finally begun. Perhaps driverless cars will chase all hazardous and bad drivers off the roads. (How tranquil Mumbai would be!) But it may also nudge regulators into robbing the ability to drive ourselves from those who enjoy it and are reasonably good at it.
Think about it. Robots and automation have eliminated jobs in industry after industry around the world. The standard response from unions and newspaper readers has been one of outrage and somberness. But with driverless cars, people would voluntarily pay for technology that renders them unemployed as drivers of their own vehicles. BMW’s great slogan “sheer driving pleasure” will have to be changed into “sheer driverless pleasure”. Where is this heading?
Cars have always been status symbols: as much a thing to help you go somewhere as to help others see where you stand. But that status flowed largely from commanding that expensive piece of technology, being at the helm of it. Mastering a car meant that we amplified our own power and expanded our freedom. We could go wherever we pleased.
Driverlessness would, therefore, also mean powerlessness; impotence through technology, almost. Scores of movies have been made in which men and women used cars to impress the opposite sex—admittedly with varying degrees of success. But it seems hard to imagine anyone getting lucky from flaunting a driverless car. I am not saying that the de-sexualization of the car per se is a reason for sorrow. Yet the advent of the driverless car may be one of the most tangible manifestations of our increasing surrender to technology.
A car used to be one of the most pointed expansions of our physical freedom and psychological power, perhaps second only to the sheer victory of a young child taking its first steps. Handing that power back to a computer seems a watershed moment. But perhaps only to those who have grown up in the period in which we were in the driver’s seat. I would not be surprised if our children will have little trouble adopting such technology. The entire car industry may have to be repositioned to reflect the transformation of its meaning if driverless cars will turn out to fill a true customer demand and if the legal roadblocks are cleared.
Obviously there are interesting advantages of driverless cars also. Traffic accidents, fuel consumption and emissions may drop. The traffic in cities like Delhi and Mumbai would become a breeze if all cars were driverless. Imagine letting our autopilot drive us home while we nap in the back after a long meeting. Would we dare to let our autopilot drive the kids to school on Monday morning, so we can stay in bed just a few minutes longer? Or picture a young couple flirting on the back seat while the autopilot drives them home after a party. Come to think of it, they might call that progress. Sheer driving pleasure.
Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.