‘The greatest change in motoring history is coming - but we don’t want it’

Mike Rutherford reckons that instead of telling us what they think we should have, manufacturers and politicians must ask us what we’d like from our cars and roads

Opinion driverless cars

It matters not if car users love or loathe the UK Government, and approve or disapprove of what it now very carefully refers to as “self-driving” cars. What matters is that if our rulers get their way, human cargo will soon be carried in such vehicles on public roads. When we will be asked or forced to travel aboard them is not yet known, but it’s clear the Government is formally and aggressively promoting what it deliberately calls the “self-driving” cause. 

There are confident assurances that “the first types of self-driving vehicles could be on UK roads by the end of this year”. That’s probably an ambition too far, but maybe the Government knows things we don’t. Perhaps it already has answers to the many legal, insurance, infrastructure, cost, safety and other questions recently raised about vehicles that are supposed to drive themselves on congested streets.    

What’s more, our leaders have the apparent backing of the UK’s motor industry. This means an unlikely new partnership, with politicians on one side, car makers on t’other. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says the UK is already a world leader in “self-driving vehicle innovation” and is thus singing from the same hymn sheet as the Government. Interesting. Possibly game-changing.  

So it seems there is little that can stop such vehicles landing on public roads in the 2020s. We’re just not sure whether they’ll arrive in the early, mid, or latter part of this decade. Neither do we know if today’s motoring masses want or need to travel aboard expensive self-driving machines of tomorrow. Probably not, would be my guess. 

This motorist certainly doesn’t. And that’s after many twitchy hours spent inside fast-moving cars that were – in Government speak – self-driving. In Japan I endured rides in cars with eerily empty drivers’ seats – as steering wheels and gearsticks kept themselves impressively but nauseatingly busy. Toyota’s tech guys and Honda’s Asimo robot were keen to strap me in and send me down the road, but, significantly, none of them accompanied me (or my screaming). I don’t blame them, because riding in a car without a driver can be scary – regardless of how often one is given the dubious opportunity to do it.

In South Korea, driverless Hyundais and Kias hauled me around a track near the equally unnerving border with North Korea. On a disused airfield in Germany I felt a tad more relaxed, thanks to the run-off areas and VW engineers who – rightly or wrongly – gave me the impression that they could wrestle back control of the driverless car I was in should its tech go pear-shaped. Maybe I’m a coward, control freak, lousy passenger, or all three, but nothing can prepare a committed driver like me for surreal, stressful rides in cars that do the starting, driving, hazard perception, crash avoidance, stopping (hopefully), and parking for you. I feel queasy thinking about being a human guinea pig cum crash-test muppet as I sat paralysed in cars with no hands on the wheel or feet on the pedals. Take it from me – travelling in a car with no driver is about as appealing, relaxing and enjoyable as the prospect of flying in a plane without a pilot, or sailing on a ship without a captain. 

Check out what happened when we went to test driverless tech with Thatcham...

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