Newspapers are interesting. You can pick up a sheaf of pulped wood and read articles about all sorts of fascinating topics. Just the other day I read a small piece about driverless cars. This made me wonder about two things.
The article I read (in the International New York Times) reported how last Monday at the International CES, a large trade show themed on technology, Dieter Zetsche showed off Mercedes Benz´s vision of a driverless car. Zetsche described the car as a sort of “luxury carriage” that could provide a peaceful and pleasant space for its passengers. The interior he showed is suitably space age and features lots of things unrelated to driving, controlling or steering the car. In essence, it´s a car with no steering wheel and where the driver interfaces are replaced with user interfaces quite similar to all the swipey, slidy, touchy panels of glass we spend most of our days gazing into. There are some seats too, and they swivel, in a manner not unlike that seen in office-on-wheels version of Chrysler´s Imperial in the 1960s.
The first thing I thought was that perhaps someone in Mercedes´styling studio was given another brief than for a driverless car. The semantics of the exterior express speed and make the car look as if it will go quickly and perform at high velocities. Standard cars should seem to be ready to do our bidding. And the Benz concept looks like a standard car. Seen for what it really is, the driverless car is nothing so much as a small train carriage, guided on virtual tracks by a lot of computing power and large, integrated networks. All of this is about taking control away from the driver. Such a car is, in reality, not going to go very fast and won´t do its owner´s bidding. If it´s to be relaxing, it can´t do our bidding. Having control of a car is mostly a chore. So a driverless car does not need to look fast at all. It needs to look like a big room on wheels.
Turning back to the freedom bit: autonomy is the central conceit of the standard car. It might be a big lie, and public transport might get you there nearly as fast, but that´s what makes us stump up a year or two year’s salary. We imagine the car will manifest our will to be free and will be better than sitting on a bus. My question is whether people will accept the trade-off, a bit of privacy and bit more time with their smart ‘phone for a lot less control or will they see it another way. That other way is that driverless cars offer the worst of both private and public transport: all the cost owning a blasted car and most of the perceived inconvenience of waiting in a huge system geared around co-ordinating lots of people on the move. Put like that, I think many people may just give up on having a car. So driverless cars are just a way of having customerless car companies.
As it happens, I´ve used a lot of public transport this year, mostly trains and some busses here and there while my own car has had time to gather dust in an underground car park. I can´t say I have really missed it. I sometimes go and look at it. And the times I did really need a passenger car, I rented one. The uses I put them too were unsuited to a driverless car: I did odd trips to remote places where I expect that for many decades there won´t be any need for a computer to guide me nor the sorts of roads suited to the technology. I did some tourism as well and used trains for that. It was great (I´ve always loved trains) and I couldn´t imagine why I would want to go to a lovely place and look at road markings as I toured. In a train I sat back and gazed in wonder at the places I was rolling through. And drank coffee too. And I just learned belatedly that Ikea will drive my useless rubbish home for me so I don´t even need a car for that either. Why do I have my car then? Why will I go through all the grief needed to get the car back on the open road? Because I like to drive. I think.
That said, a lot of people don´t seem to think like me. As a counterpoint, here are the results of a survey carried out by Cisco in 2013 that shows people want less control and are happy with letting a computer chauffeur them around. I wonder have they thought through the implications.
This still leaves the matter of appearance. MB´s driverless car is a throwback, like the early cars that still used the vertical form language of carriages. If Mercedes really want to sell this idea, they need to think again about how to package the notion of a rolling sitting room. This won’t hinder car stylists in the least. The paradigm of the long, low, speedy vehicle was quite constrictive in some ways yet there have been countless variations on the theme. Now the paradigm should be different: a nice looking box. Think train. Or perhaps think toaster. Alternatively, the driverless car will not materialise in its pure form, but will be like an ordinary car that can be switched to driverless on command. In any case, public transport looks more and more appealing.