How To Be a Motoring Enthusiast in the 21st Century – Part 2

Allow me, if you will, dear reader, to take you on a brief sojourn into the future.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

The year is 2051 and, as I approach my mid seventies, I hope to be able to retire in a few years and spend more time on my various hobbies. Today is a prelude to that happy prospect, in the form of a paid day off work as part of the European West Central Union sponsored ExperiencedWorkersKeepVITAL! programme and I have arranged a treat for myself in the form of a morning’s participation in a driving day at the Zandvoort racing circuit on the west coast of the Netherlands (not that you get to see much of the coast these days, given the sad necessity of the new sea wall).

I awoke before the alarm this morning, a visit to a racing circuit still sufficient to cause a degree of childish excitement in this senior citizen, and breakfasted early. My watch confirmed that the car booked to take me to Zandvoort would be on time, offered me a morning update and chided me about my intake of sodium and alcohol the previous evening. Apparently my corona levels are also a bit elevated today, but nothing the nanomeds can’t handle.

The car arrived on time and alerted me to its presence via my watch. Descending the stairs to the entrance hall of the building, I could see that the brand new SAIC Songbird (they have really cornered the taxi market here in the last few years) had parked itself neatly by the canal, tucked in between two other vehicles, one of which was my neighbour’s Polestar coupé. I am rather jealous of that splendid carriage and miss having my own car but it’s a completely uneconomic proposition for me and quite unnecessary now that physical travel for work happens a couple of times a year at best. Besides, a car can usually be summoned within minutes just by asking one’s watch; booking in advance for today was purely an act of caution.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

The Songbird’s door slides open as it senses my approach and I climb up into the expansive interior. Alas, this new model is draped in a sea of the currently fashionable violet fake leather trim, interrupted only occasionally by white self-cleaning plastic and chrome fittings, and reminds me how I miss the sober grey and black car interiors of old. At the time, I recall, we thought such things rather sombre; we should have known better. The Songbird is a pure self-driving variant, of course, with no manual controls whatsoever.

My watch has informed the car’s systems that I am one of the few remaining paying newspaper subscribers and so I am saved from the complimentary algorithmic feeds, able to peruse the morning’s news stories at my leisure and then switch them off. The car’s assistant attempts to engage me in conversation and interest me in various content and offers but I am becoming quite adept at the brusqueness required to discourage such AIs and after a while it gives up.

The first part of the journey is slow going; a single carriageway road where no distinction can be made between the majority of self-driving cars and the remaining manual drive vehicles on the public roads. When we reach the motorway however, the Songbird moves smoothly across to the autonomous-only lanes and joins the fast-moving car-train on the far left. At an average speed of 180 kilometres per hour the mixed traffic lanes on the right are a blur receding into the distance and it is a short time before we are moving across again to exit the motorway and turn westwards towards the coast and Zandvoort.

As we get nearer to our destination, my watch relays a message from a friend, wishing me a fun day driving and I am touched by their thoughtfulness. I must try to visit them in person soon, it’s been far too long with only holographic contact. Alas, the restrictions on meetings in real life have been getting tougher in recent years; the rising numbers of nanomed-sceptics, many of whom also pre-emptively refuse treatment by autodocs, have led to a permanent shortage of human medical staff and commensurate restrictions on what were once daily activities.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Arriving at the circuit, the gates recognise me and the Songbird is allowed to drive straight through to the reception area, where I can see that the Caterham SuperSportE I have booked is already parked, waiting for me. To my delight, it’s decked out in Prisoner colours: Dark green with a yellow nose-cone, a proper blast from the past and allowing me a momentary fantasy of being a sleek-suited 1960s Patrick McGoohan, rather than an ageing and practically dressed civil servant on his day off.

Parked nearby, awaiting another participant in the driving day, is one of its extreme Dutch cousins; a Donkervoort GTOplus Duivelskind Edition. I have read about this car and briefly considered booking a go, but the necessity of a full medical assessment and signed disclaimer before being allowed to drive it put me off. It is capable of generating G-force levels that are hazardous to those of my age.

My Caterham is the basic model, with a mere 300 horsepower at its disposal. Its batteries and motors have been arranged in such a way as to emulate the weight distribution of the original petrol-powered models and drive is to the rear wheels only. Driving assistance can be defeated on this track-only model to the maximum extent permitted by law, the system only intervening in the event of a potential serious crash. It’s been far too long since I drove such a machine (or any manual drive car for that matter) and I find myself both excited and a little apprehensive.

Speaking of excitement and apprehension, those feelings temporarily got the better of the young woman who had evidently booked the Donkervoort: Distracted by the prospect of driving it, she passed too close to me as she emerged from the reception building and walked towards its low, menacing presence, leading to a chorus of beeping and buzzing from our watches. Realising her mistake, she sprang back and apologised, after which we exchanged a few words about our chosen vehicles for the driving day. She had driven ‘my’ Caterham previously and was highly complimentary about its driving characteristics; today would be her first outing in the Donkervoort.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

I clambered, not without some small degree of difficulty, into the cramped cabin of the Caterham and listened patiently as the assistant told me about the car’s features and warned me not to deactivate driving assistance, which I then immediately proceeded to do, accepting the disclaimer on my watch. Just ahead of me in the Donkervoort, a similar but rather more extensive procedure was underway and I could see the car briefly testing its braking jets.

The Donkervoort went out onto the track first, accelerating up the first straight with staggering speed, whilst probably using only a fraction of its total power. My own entry was more cautious; I was here to enjoy myself but not in any hurry. It was a shock to be back behind the wheel of such a small, light, precise vehicle as the Caterham and I had the feeling that the car was more dancing than driving around the circuit. I rapidly re-acclimatised to controlling the car’s movements and progress; and to the delicate nature of steering this light but rapid car. As we progressed further, I gained more and more confidence in the communicative steering, grippy tyres and the fine balance of the chassis, daring to push a little more into the corners.

I was lapped several times by the Donkervoort, all dramatic urgency and jet-assistance, but at no point found myself jealous of its young pilot. No doubt the experience of driving such a machine would be thrilling and I could quite understand her wanting to try it, but I doubted it would match the delightful purity of the little Caterham.

All too soon, it was time to return to the reception area, allow the Caterham a well-earned rest and to procure myself a hopefully similarly well-earned lunch that, owing to the current location restrictions, would have to be consumed on the way home. The car was waiting for me as I emerged; a slightly older model SAIC with, I was pleased to note, a sober and comfortable brown interior.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Knowing that I would be tired after the visceral experience of driving the Caterham, I had treated myself to the optional Silent Luxury package for the journey home, allowing me to silence all the car’s assistants, feeds and media. Even the usual fake driving hum could be switched off inside the car and I returned home in a cocoon of quietude, mentally reliving the experience of guiding the little SuperSportE around the track.

Once upon a time, said experience would have been accompanied by the roar of an engine burning the refined liquid remnants of compressed prehistoric plants and animals whilst spewing combustion by-products into the atmosphere, rather than the whine of the contemporary Caterham’s electric drivetrain. I am old enough to remember what that was like, just about, and to sometimes miss it. In this moment, however, silence is golden.

Author: Chris Elvin

Appreciator of dead and dying marques. Drowns his sorrows with good wine.

32 thoughts on “How To Be a Motoring Enthusiast in the 21st Century – Part 2”

  1. Good morning Chris. You paint a vivid picture of a future that, while not exactly dystopian, seems very sad. There’s no spontaneity, limited and stilted human interaction, and every activity feels tightly monitored and controlled. It appears that while technology has provided solutions of a sort to the many problems that currently assail us, the price paid for this is a loss of much of the liberty and independence we take for granted today.

    I would be 90 in 2051 if I live that long, but I’m not sure the world you describe is one I would want to inhabit.

  2. Much thanks Chris, a beautifully written and
    gently ironic passage of melancholy.

    1. Beautifully written indeed. But in the unlikely event of my still being here in the middle of the first decade of my second century, I would probably be sitting on my promontory on the northern shores of the East Midland delta, working my way through the last of my whisky and reminiscing with my few surviving neighbours on the good old days when our homes had services powered by electricity – before the satellite wars which put an end to instant global communication and everything associated with it. Not that I’m a pessimist, of course.

      Interesting that you chose a Prisoner-liveried Caterham, Chris, as your choice of transport of delight….

  3. Doh – Chris should have been inserted after Caterham and not before. And I haven’t touched a drop.

  4. Thank you for this highly realistic preview of a world to come.
    The only thing I can think of when reading this is that I’m glad that most probably I won’t have to live in this world.

  5. Thank you Chris for an (almost) realistic description of a possible future.

    However, I think that Zandvoort will certainly still exist as a town, but instead of the current race track, there will be a different use of the area.
    Also, your “racing experience” will be more virtual on a computer, as the unnecessary waste of energy will no longer be allowed in this form.
    As “I have heard from well-informed circles”, you will also be one of the last to “experience” an experience of this kind, as 2051 will also be the last year in which these “aggression-promoting activities” will be allowed on the computer.

    But there is also a positive aspect in your somewhat dystopian description: I am, thank God, dead by then.

    1. Zandvoort as a town is pretty terrible. If I had to chose between the race track and town, well…

    2. Yes, you are right, it is not necessarily the most beautiful place in the world. But you also have to see the origin and development of the place in a temporal context. Not that this knowledge makes the place more beautiful, but you understand its present appearance better.
      But one advantage of Zandvoort is that when you reached the race track, you’ve left the worst behind.
      In the place where I live (Lüneburg) we have nothing to distract from a brick-walled boredom and ugliness. Rest assured, there are places worse than Zandvoort….

  6. Thank you for your peek into a future that, unfortunately, will most likely become a grim reality. I posted your article to Linkedin, where there is a constant chirping about AV and EV from the majority of the automotive industry-all licking their chops over all the “content” they can push into the connected car.

  7. Thank you all for your comments. I agree it is a somewhat dystopian vision that I have presented here; all I can say to that is that this is but one of many possible futures and the only certainty is that I won’t have got it exactly right.

    As to the aesthetic qualities of Zandvoort… well, there are some lovely dunes next door…

  8. The government will cancel your health insurance if you keep stepping outside your recommended daily nutritional allowances, Chris.

    I see that New Zealand intends banning smoking by raising the legal age at which one can smoke, progressively. In other words, those who are now aged 14 and under will never be old enough to smoke. Part of me thinks this is a great idea on health grounds and part of me thinks it smacks of authoritarianism. The bottom line I guess is that if people voted for it, then it gets implemented.

    1. Chris, I think your ‘big brother’ watch is a highly plausible future reality. I recently replaced my mobile phone and received a smart watch as a ‘free gift’. Synced to my phone, it is busily recording my levels of physical activity, heart rate, etc. It is a short step from this to uploading medical data to a health insurance company to allow them to ‘personalise’ the premium they charge me. (The model for this already exists in the motor insurance markets, where ‘black boxes’ monitor the standard of the insured’s driving and provide input to determine premiums.)

      From there, it’s a longer (but not unimaginable) step to see the same medical data uploaded to state-run health services, to be used as a determinant in the allocation of treatment, a finite resource facing ever increasing demand. Surgeons already insist on weight loss as a precondition of performing certain operations, so the precedent is already established here also.

      (Apologies for straying beyond DTW’s remit, but I’m expressing no opinion on the desirability or otherwise of any such scenario, merely pointing out its possibility.)

    2. Hello Daniel, you know what they say – when something’s free, you are the product.

      I think Chris’s article was superbly done – a fantasy, but a plausible one.

  9. Like other commentators before me I enjoyed your really well constructed piece so thank you for posting it.
    I agree with your assessment too but don’t have a watch to tell me what to do nor will I in the future.
    I have also driven a Caterham a number of times and enjoyed every moment!

  10. Thank you, Chris, for a very well imagined and elegantly expressed vision of a possible future! I didn’t quite find dystopian – in fact it’s more hopeful in some ways than many of the predictions one reads. I must admit I find the onward march of automation more depressing than that of electrification – I enjoy the act of driving but exercising machinery to its limit holds little attraction for me. If we have to confine our actual driving to track days then something will have been lost. Maybe the way to view it is that we have been fortunate to have lived when such things were possible and even desirable!

  11. Chris, great contribution, many thoughts provoked. I’m put in mind of Yogi Berra’s words; “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Whatever we think will happen, something unexpected will come along and change everything. Plenty more of these on the way in the next 30 years…

    And Fred. Lüneburg. Niedersachsen? I spent a morning there in August 2019, and thought it was a delightful town. I even enjoyed the ramshackle temporary arrangements at the Bahnhof, which had a frontier town feel. I was on my way to the core of the former DDR, and even there never found one settlement remotely as dispiriting as the generality of the UK’s small towns, grim sinks of post-industrial deprivation surviving on bad money.

    I’ve been to Zandvoort. Was taken to what I was told was a very good pancake restaurant. My only recollection was puzzlement that a pancake was considered a main meal.

    1. Thanks Robertas. For pancake meals you really need to visit the shatteringly picturesque village of Broek in Waterland, conveniently near to Amsterdam. Mmm, pancakes.

  12. To be fair, as an avid Forza Horizon player I can testify that, at least in the digital world, the Donkervoort should probably require a medical assessment and signed disclaimer in comparison with the relatively tractable Caterham. I certainly see it likely that this could be a potential future in Europe and Asia, though the ‘free-market’ Americans would probably take rather poorly to not being able to drive themselves on public roads (despite it being public hazard #1). It’s a difficult problem to sort, that—how do you reconcile the issue of traffic fatalities with what would inevitably be a overbearing AI road network? I wonder how bad helicopter parenting would become in that future, too, what with phone and car tracking apps already being a thing now, there would be practically no agency for teens if they have to ‘book’ a self-driving car that their parents would certainly know about.

    I, for one, don’t think the self-driving future will arrive as quickly (i.e. the next twenty years) as Silicon Valley promises. All our driver assistance packages are simply a multitude of information-recording systems that aggregate what amounts to a simulation of driving, but there is no vehicle-to-vehicle communication or truly human-esque analog perception. They work great on the wide open roads of Phoenix, but I’d like to see a Waymo Pacifica navigate a medieval Italian city or a Northeaster snow storm, situations where nuance and human judgement are paramount for safe navigation where sensors or radar would be overcautious or completely hindered. Now, humans can make just as many mistakes in these instances, but I think that simply stands to emphasize the importance of extensive, all-weather drivers’ training as they do in Finland as opposed to the haphazard, ‘drive around the block and you pass’ system we have at least in the USA.

    Honestly, I see the promise of the FSD car as a hollow patch over America’s lack of public transportation. They try to cover up the fact that Uber and Lyft are ultimately unprofitable because they hinge on the idea that FSD is relatively close to fruition and so they are just waiting to cut out their drivers’ paychecks from the bottom line. They put off subway systems because Elon Musks’ self-driving Teslas in a tunnel are just so forward-thinking. And the worst part is that the public, enamored by the spectacle, think that FSD is their best bet! I think that the best we should hope for in this century is the expansion of public transport networks combined with good driver-assistance packages designed to reduce fatigue and risk on the road. We shouldn’t be trying to ‘crack’ FSD this soon, as the social, political, and economic landscape of the globe will absolutely be turned on its head once FSD becomes a reality. I often say, once FSD becomes fully viable in replacing all human drivers, that will be the day that a universal basic income ultimately cannot be forsaken in America.

    1. Motorway only self-driving would be a sensible aim for the technology, but that’s not really exciting enough for publicity purposes.

  13. Brilliant writting Chris, which reminded me René Barjavel’s book “Ravage”.

    1. Thank you. Though I am a huge fan of utopian writing, I was not aware of this work. Thanks for the tip!

  14. Dear Chris, thank you for the piece, your imagination is fruitful and I appreciate your writing style. On a lighter tone, I know what I will do as a car lover. I will enlarge my collection of car models, 1:43, 1:87 and the like, and I will enjoy playing with them. I will also watch videos from old rallyes and car races, and that is all. Perhaps I will practice digital art, ie design of imaginary cars using some computer program.

  15. Something that striken me oddly is the amount of bhp available at the lady’s car in the cirquit. This is something that we see today, cars that have powerful engines. I could argue that excessive engine power is not needed to provide driver satisfaction. A nice example is Lancia Fulvia Coupe, with 100 to 130 hp, even in the HF vesion. And yet this car has been praised for its capabilities and feeling. A small ordinary car today offers the same engine output, but the feeling?

  16. Thank you for all the kind comments on this piece. I’m glad people found something of value in my little jaunt into utopian fiction (even if some, understandably, found it dystopian). Be warned: I have already threatened to submit a part 3…

  17. Chris, thank you for this lovely piece of automotive science fiction. Your article spurned me to a thought about two wheeled vehicles, because surely it will take much longer for them to become fully autonomous, and can we seriously imagine that ever happening?

    Anyway, how about flying cars? That fantasy never seems to get old!

    I don’t think we’ll large scale adoption of “level 5” autonomy or flying cars within fifty years because even if the technology will exist to make them possible and viable, the political, legal, and cultural hurdles seem insurmountable absent tectonic societal and infrastructural initiatives which imply a utopian, not dystopian revolution would need to take place.

    However in the near term, there seems to be an opening for companies who want to sell digital cars with “personality”, some of which could thrill enthusiasts (think GINA, or some of the cars that makers have already conjured that currently exist only in games like Forza or Gran Turismo). And for non-enthusiasts, particulary young fans of Anime, Manga, Astro-boy, Pokemon, Hello Kitty… one might suppose they have much to look forward to.

  18. Bit late to the party, Chris, but well done! Very enjoyable. Nanomed-sceptics made me chuckle… who could possibly be sceptic about microscopic robots running amok in your body 😉 (not that I’m a vaccine or Covid sceptic). The thought of having to live with lockdown-like restrictions for the next thirty years is heavily depressing, though. Fortunately, the one thing you know about stories trying to predict the future is that they never come true exactly the way they were written…

    It’s not just Zandvoort: all over Europe the coastal towns seem designed to drive people into the dunes and onto the beach as quickly as possible, especially out of season.

  19. Sadly, the same is true in the UK, where most seaside towns are a shadow of what they were in their Victorian heyday, and places of high unemployment too, with the large-scale collapse of our fishing industry and a lack of other places of employment apart from the highly seasonal tourist industry.

    There are a few jewels, like Southwold in Suffolk, about fifteen miles from us, which is small enough to have retained its charm. Unfortunately, it gets overrun by visitors in the summer and is far too busy for comfort. Much nicer on a bright winter’s day.

    1. Either that, or just walk a ways from the built-up area (I actually didn’t walk all that way, there are several places where you can get near to the beach by car or bicycle):

  20. “Be warned: I have already threatened to submit a part 3…”
    Yes please!!!

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