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