Against driverless cars

OK, fair enough:

Crawford, a research fellow in culture at the University of Virginia – and a man who is currently “restoring and radically modifying” a 1975 VW Beetle using his principle of “folk engineering” – would beg to differ. He makes the case that “technocrats and optimisers seek to make everything idiot-proof, and pursue this by treating us like idiots. It is a presumption that tends to be self-fulfilling; we really do feel ourselves becoming dumber. Against such a backdrop, to drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and I suspect that is why we love to drive.”

This is not only a petrolhead’s complaint against rule-making officialdom (though Crawford reserves a special place in hell for the bureaucratic scalpers who install traffic cameras); it is also a vivid and heartfelt manifesto against the drift of our world, against the loss of individual agency and the human pleasure of acquired skill and calculated risk. It asks its readers to beware tech billionaires bearing algorithms.

That does rather fuck over the case for public transport, doesn’t it?

52 thoughts on “Against driverless cars”

  1. There is no pleasure in driving around London or Sydney or any other major city, using public transport in such places is often the best option. In our little town, it is not really enjoyable to drive in and out of town, but it is far more efficient than making use of the sparse buses. The pleasure of driving is when you can hit the genuine open road: The Great Ocean Road in Victoria (though make sure you’re heading away from Melbourne just now), Chapman’s Peak Drive, coastal and hinterland Sardinia, heading up into the Rockies, all drives I have thoroughly enjoyed, especially when you come across somewhere special for lunch.

  2. I see from the comments below the article that Grauniad readers have no truck with individual freedom or getting their hands dirty. Cars are evil, polluting and selfish and that’s that.
    I have neither owned nor driven a car for decades and have no intention of doing so in the future, however it is still an important tool for many people, especially as public transport is very limited outside large cities. If you have a few quid then trains & taxis are a workable alternative in much of the UK, but this approach doesn’t work for most people.
    Car ownership has brought a huge increase in freedom for working class people in particular, enabling them to have much broader horizons for work and leisure.

  3. @ DocBud

    The self-driving car is handy for when you do find somewhere special for lunch and also want a few (alcoholic) drinks to go with it. Best case, is drive there and have the car bring you home.

  4. MC – “Car ownership has brought a huge increase in freedom for working class people in particular, enabling them to have much broader horizons for work and leisure”.
    And that’s the problem with a typical Gruaniad reader – despite them constantly banging on about how we must aid the poor and working class, they fundamentally despise them.
    Also, people who don’t drive (or do but don’t like driving) fail to see that others might actually enjoy it.

  5. @”Against such a backdrop, to drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and I suspect that is why we love to drive.””
    Personally I drive to get from a to b. If there is a better* way to do so (train,walk, bus etc) I do so.
    *better = total cost in time money etc is lower.
    You get a much better sense of freedom cycling than driving – a shame that your chance of finding your bike undamaged is so low in so many parts of the UK. Solving that would really encourage cycling for real journeys (as opposed to for fun).
    (For people who love driving, don’t forget more cycling – more parking places for you!)

  6. It isn’t that long ago that families tended to have one car between them, and many people in lower paid jobs simply couldn’t afford one. In most towns the massive increase in on-street parking where driveways are now full – and the loss of almost all the old-style front gardens that have been converted into driveways – is testament to that.

    Problem is, the more cars there are, the more of a pain they are, including to other car users…

  7. Public transport is unreliable especially, when they were municipally-owned, London buses and, from the introduction of diesels until privatisation, British Rail. If you can’t get there on foot or bicycle you need a car or a taxi to be sure of arriving on time (or, sometimes, at all).

  8. There are limits to the numbers of cars–as you can only drive one at a time.

    As has been said so many times driverless is a long way off regardless of how many conmen are pushing it. The political scum are involved to try and stake out control right from the start. To turn private into public so to speak.

    All the greenshite are car grabbers and we will have to beat them. MC is right that a car has given great freedom to all but esp the less well off. Removing that freedom is what the Marxist greenscum and their verminous political allies are all about.

    But you wont ever find Blojob Johnson on a bus–save as a publicity stunt. If car grabbing is his sincere conviction–let him start with his own and ALL govt cars–ALL.

  9. Why, you can scarcely get on a bus hereabouts for all the MPs, government ministers, Guardian journos and BBC presenters. And of course bus company executives.

  10. Cars may be the only option to avoid being muzzled.
    The maskerbators are frotting themselves at the thought of forcing everyone to wear the pointless muzzles and drive those still capable of thinking off public transport

  11. ‘This is not only a petrolhead’s complaint’

    Uhh . . . what? ‘Merica doesn’t have ‘petrolheads.’

    We use gasoline.

  12. Dearieme, George Orwell got it right: ‘two wheels good, four wheels bad’. Or something like that.

  13. ‘That does rather fuck over the case for public transport, doesn’t it?’

    And chauffeurs.

    Frequently people confuse features with benefits. Features are not benefits. The benefit of a car is convenience. The advantage is a mode of transport which is immediately available when you want to use it, as often as you want and in which you can travel directly to destination. Self-driving is just a feature. The benefit is the same whether you drive or somebody/something else does.

  14. I think he overrates how much people like driving. I love driving up the Fosse or on the A361 or the A4 on a sunny day, but going around the M25, sitting in a queue going into Bristol in the morning?

    Not driving makes you an idiot at driving, same as I’m an idiot at fixing cars. I call the AA or see my local garage. And the benefit is we can all do something else with our minds, which is why I generally prefer the bus or train – because I’m not knackered and can read a book.

    “and a man who is currently “restoring and radically modifying” a 1975 VW Beetle”

    I would describe this guy as an unserious hipster prick. Beetles were pretty good in their time, but they’re noisy, unreliable, slow, thirsty and unsafe. Get a 10 year old Toyota for a couple of grand and just drive it. I’ll be good for 5-10 years at least.

  15. @john77
    Cars are also unreliable in that traffic can cause severe delays.
    If I had an interview for a job, however I wanted to get there (unless I could walk there). I would aim to arrive a lot earlier than I needed because I want to get there on time.
    Of course normally when you do this the journey is either a) amazing or b) so awful you still arrive late!

  16. Never ceases to amaze me how many people who are vociferously opposed to private car ownership demand lifts at 2AM when it’s pissing down with rain.

  17. I would describe this guy as an unserious hipster prick. Beetles were pretty good in their time, but they’re noisy, unreliable, slow, thirsty and unsafe.

    BoM4, absolutely. Except that they weren’t even good in their time. I hope his ‘radically modifying’ includes a fix to the jacking effect from front and rear swing axles.

    I learned to drive in, variously, a 1956 MGA, 80’s RX-7, and an 80’s short wheel base Pajero. As much as I liked them at the time, looking back, they were all crap compared to what is available now, or even 5-10 years ago.

  18. Gamecock loves to drive. He rode his motorrad two hours yesterday. Out into the surrounding counties’ back roads. It was glorious!

    He’ll be driving his GT350R this afternoon.

  19. With a great majority of self driving cars in an area it could vastly improve the speed of driving. Humans need the visual signals, computers can use a faster transmission and act on it quicker. E.g.-

    When starting off from a pedestrian crossing the driver must wait for the visual cue that the car in front is moving so each car sets off later and later than the first. Automated vehicles could all move at the same time as the first signals the rest it is clear to go.

    Traffic lights for organising turning traffic are required by people. But automated vehicles could organise themselves for optimal time changing their speed to allow a car through (like zip merging but for oncoming turning cars)

  20. When I was a babe in arms my parents would occasionally drag us from north Wiltshire to the New Forest to see family. It took a whole working day+ of trains and waiting and buses and waiting; a whole day of precious RAF leave – and then a whole day of misery to return. Just to go thirty odd miles to the next county. Later in life they could travel comfortably driveway to driveway from Lincolnshire to the same destination in just over three hours.

    I carefully chose my house so I can walk to work but they’ll see some proper fucking riots if they take my car away for their ideological twattery.

  21. PJF–Amen

    But they are already at it. Check how many prev minor MOT faults are now grounds for fail and more expense.

  22. “When starting off from a pedestrian crossing the driver must wait for the visual cue that the car in front is moving so each car sets off later and later than the first. Automated vehicles could all move at the same time as the first signals the rest it is clear to go.”

    Does this work in practice? Once the cars have got up to speed they must need a time gap between them – even if they’re automated – to reduce the risk of collision due to unexpected events (animal runs into road, tyre blows or whatever). So if that time gap is generated by the delay between cars starting up at a set of lights I’m not sure it makes much odds. The fact the lights can be optimised for the actual traffic if everything is networked might be handy, as you say.

    Related to the speed…. If automated vehicles can follow each other more closely than human-driven ones (better reaction time but also if the vehicle in front can feed data about upcoming road conditions to the ones behind, solving the “you can’t see through a lorry” problem) there would be efficiency benefits to being in each other’s slipstream. I know there’s been research into semi-automated lorries “platooning” to save fuel but presumably it applies to other vehicles too, particularly if operating on a road which is automated-only. https://traton.com/en/innovation/automated-driving/driving_in_the_slipstream.html

  23. I agree with the above comments about the VW Beetle. What I don’t get is why such a hideous car was such a huge best seller. But then the same thing applies to the timeless Honda 50. It does at least have the benefit of being cheap to run and reliable even in spite of criminal levels of neglect by its owner. But everything else about it is terrible. The handling, the gearbox the useless legshields, the feeble lights and indicators the egg cup sized fuel tank. Horrible things but the worlds best selling motorcycle by far.

  24. One long-run problem I can see with traffic lights – once pedestrians realise automated cars magically stop when you stand in front of them, especially if they’re at low speeds, at traffic lights with busy pedestrian crossings there’s not much to stop pedestrians just keeping streaming across long after the green man has gone. At some busy London crossings the equilibrium seems to be that that people will keep crossing but drivers start inching forwards once their light has gone green, and if people still keep crossing the honking starts. Unless automated cars have some similar level of inbuilt impatience and ability to communicate with pedestrians, they could get stuck for a long time. (There’s some related human-car interaction stuff in https://spectrum.ieee.org/transportation/self-driving/the-big-problem-with-selfdriving-cars-is-people which has contributed to my scepticism about automated vehicles.)

  25. DocBud has it right, at least as far as I’m concerned. Hitting the open road on a trip can be very enjoyable, as can negotiating a dirt track in the mountains where I wouldn’t trust the truck to “self drive”, but 20 miles of stop and go commute traffic isn’t as fun as it sounds.

    I’ve never understood the infatuation some people have with old VW Bugs, but those who love them really do love them.

  26. My dad never owned a car. I guess my parents decided to spend their money on other things, like a really nice house when I was 10. Of course they had always lived on the edge of the Manchester conurbation except during the war, and both buses and trains were plentiful in that period pre-Beeching. However I never saw it as an option, so as soon as I had saved enough, I learned to drive, passing my test in 1968. I loved driving then, even when I lived in London in 1971, catching green waves along Euston Rd. You can’t do that now. And I hated having to drive into central London some years ago to pick up some kit. The real utility of a car is not so much the 300-mile drive but the capability to get around locally when you get there. And for us in a village with approximately one bus a day, it’s essential.

    Despite all the hoo-ha, self driving cars are still a long way off – same sort of timescale as fusion power probably. Not so much because of the tech, though that is hard enough, but for legal & liability issues. If you are spark out dead drunk in the back of a self-drive vehicle & it kills someone, are you responsible? If not who (including non-person legal entities in that)?

  27. @TG

    Like you I rely on my car primarily for short-distance trips where I have no good public transport option (and though I’m not a cyclist, a bicycle wouldn’t be practical for most of my trips anyway). I’ve got a pathetically low annual mileage when you consider all the faff owning a car involves but still works out cheaper and more practical than if I hired a taxi every time I wanted to go anywhere. In the grand plan Uber seems to have for taking over the world, I’m probably its long-term target as the kind of person who might ditch my car once their density is sufficiently high and if their cost is sufficiently low. But for now the flexibility is too attractive.

    Re the legalities, one possibility is more countries adopting the NZ “no-fault” system, at least in so far as it relates to injuries from traffic accidents. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accident_Compensation_Corporation

    “ACC is the sole and compulsory provider of accident insurance in New Zealand for all work and non-work related injuries. The corporation administers the ACC Scheme on a no-fault basis, so that anyone, regardless of the way in which they suffered an injury, has coverage under the scheme. Due to the scheme’s no-fault basis, people who have suffered personal injury do not have the right to sue an at-fault party, except for exemplary damages.”

  28. Ah the VW beetle, I purchased one when I got married, a Capt Sensible move so I thought, the worst car I ever owned and the two worst aspects were the appalling handling and the seating position were you had to take your feet of the floor to operate the pedals.
    Reliable ? not mine nothing but trouble yet even the late sixties people drooled about them, I sat in the waiting area at VW St Johns Wood for the umpteenth time to collect the thing and was talking to another owner who thought they should become a deity, when I asked what it was n for, he replied, a new engine ?
    It was said they could float as they had such good door sealing, for a car what a wonderful attribute it could float…………..
    Mine went after six months of spitting blood at my terrible decision to buy one.

  29. Bloke in North Dorset

    I was listening to a senior engineer in the self driving car world a couple of years and he reckoned a fully autonomous vehicle is 30 years away ie as TG says, the same as fusion. Most of what we will be getting is driver assist features, esp ones aimed at the elderly.

  30. “Automated vehicles could all move at the same time as the first signals the rest it is clear to go.”

    I can translate: self-driving vehicles can run stop signs. Run red lights. And do any thing else the programmers want. Laws are for people.

    Can automated vehicles stop for cops? Will they sit and wait for the bulldozer that’s coming to remove them from the roadway?

  31. Thing I hated about VWs with their air cooled engines was the damn heater in winter. On a cold day, it took for damn ever for it to warm up enough to give any heat.

  32. A housemate in the 70s had an early VW with little ‘trapdoors’ to allow/block the heating – they had to be operated by opening the front boot and were (as you say) pretty useless as actual heaters (possibly as a result of the source of heat being at the back of the car). When I met the missus, she had an MG Midget with a similar trapdoor system (on/off), but at least it (a) worked; and (b) could be operated without getting out of the car. And the Midget was a lot more fun to drive.

  33. @ David
    Cars are not perfectly reliable because traffic *may* cause delay or once in 50,000 miles the engine has a fault or some idiot drives into me when I’m stopped at a red light or …
    But the failures to arrive on time due to cars is a tiny fraction of those due to public transport. Of course I catch the train before the one scheduled to get me there on time but even that isn’t completely reliable: I’ve had to apologise for arriving late at a meeting when I’ve waited at the station for the the previous train and it got to the terminus well after the later train was due. I’ve experienced delays that were greater than the scheduled journey time.

  34. I’ve posted several times on technical forums, I can’t remember if I’ve posted here. But self-driving cars are a solution for motorway driving. In the UK, motorways are Special Roads, they are explicitly *not* the public highways, and access is restricted, the design is contrained, the interaction is highly predictable. It is the perfect environment for autodriving. I can’t claim the idea, I first read an indirect reference to it in an 1970s SciFi where there was a passage along the lines of “he pulled onto the motorway, put the car into automatic, and as it sought out the guide cables under the tarmac, he dropped his seat and started to doze” (or something).

    I think the problem with current autodrive development is that it is being done in the USA, where they don’t have the legal concept of Special Roads – *everything* is a public highways, so *every* vehicle journey has to be able to cope with *every* possible interaction with *every* possible other object.

  35. Gamecock is rarely trapped by traffic. My Android Google Maps shows me in near real time if and where there are delays, so I can take a different route.

  36. Self driving cars lol to be on the same timescale as nuclear fusion.

    They will most likely come on incrementally by stealth.
    Want to go 70 on the motorway? – your car will have to be fitted with some form of autonomous braking or whatever.
    The same will be brought in for urban zones, want to travel over 10mph, your car must have auto pedestrian braking.
    Both will be justified on If it saves one life etc etc
    As is usual with the control freaks amongst us it’ll always be the sneaky route.

  37. The non-auto manufacturer boosters of self-drive cars aren’t interested in the self-drive features. They think it will reduce car ownership, thereby helping to “save the planet”. People won’t need to buy cars, as they will be able to use them as taxis effectively.

    They are doubly wrong. Ease of use always increases consumption of goods.

    Instead of me making my child walk home from school in the rain, I can send a car. As the article above shows, expensive parking will just mean streets clogged with circling cars. I’ll drive to work, then send my car home to recharge. I’m betting that supermarkets will move to loading preordered goods, picked up by autonomous cars.

  38. @Chester

    I liked what the IEEE article had to say about the nightmare of future “parking” but also wondered if it could generate even worse behaviour from those not fussed about cost. It points out if you’re a two-car family and you’re desperate to park up properly rather than have a car endlessly circulating, why not “tag-team” the parking? Wherever you’re off to, have one sent out well in advance, sitting in a prime spot and ready to vacate it when you arrive. If it’s only there as a parking hog you could just keep running the futuristic robocar version of a cheap old banger for the purpose. But if there are multiple places you might want to go there’s almost no limit to the number of cars you might want parked up wherever would be convenient for you. For those “thirty minutes maximum, no return within two hours” type spots you could even run a whole bunch of cars in rotation while you’re visiting.

    Mad of course, but if fully-automated luxury communism ever arrives and super-cheap robot cars are doled out like candy by whatever beneficence is in charge, I don’t think proponents of such a system have grasped how awful parking norms could become in a Land of Plenty (bearing in mind how convenient it is to have your own car you can dump your stuff or make a mess in, and moreover you know nobody else will have done the same, whereas parking spots are going to remain a scarce resource even in Utopia).

    @Nessimmersion

    Yep, reckon there’s something in that. Also wondered like @jgh whether there might be certain roads you’re only allowed to access with a vehicle that can run on auto – though hard to see how that works in the UK. Would be politically impossible to build eg a new Robomotorway next to the M1, human-driven cars would be too geographically limited if they weren’t allowed on the current motorway network, and only segregating autonomous and manual vehicles by lane might not add much benefit in terms of physical separation, especially with lane changes to exit at junctions. On the other hand Child Safety Tech Zones in urban areas, akin to Low Emission Zones, aren’t unimaginable – people can be persuaded to do a lot for The Children. (And in terms of externalities there may even be a Pigouvian economic rationale for it.)

    Speaking of which, on another subject close to Timmy’s heart, economists have been researching (possibly prematurely) things like “Congestion Pricing in a World of Self-driving vehicles: an Analysis of Different Strategies in Alternative Future Scenarios” https://arxiv.org/abs/1803.10872 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0968090X1830370X#! and “Pigouvian road congestion pricing under autonomous driving mode choice” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0968090X18315328

  39. @john77
    “Cars are not perfectly reliable because traffic *may* cause delay or once in 50,000 miles the engine has a fault or some idiot drives into me when I’m stopped at a red light or …
    But the failures to arrive on time due to cars is a tiny fraction of those due to public transport.”
    In the South East traffic problems are a lot more common than that. Obviously real time traffic information does help a lot.
    I have had massive delays due to traffic and it is quite common.
    I can believe that other parts of the country it is better – but certainly in the South East travel is always unreliable – unless you are driving on Christmas day or 3am in the morning.
    Although often the first few trains are ok.

  40. @Gamecock”
    Gamecock is rarely trapped by traffic. My Android Google Maps shows me in near real time if and where there are delays, so I can take a different route.”
    A bit tricky if you need to go across the Dartford crossing – and the delay is there.

  41. @David

    Yes, plenty of towns especially around the coastal or “fringe” areas of the UK really only have one major road in and out, sometimes two. If one’s shut for an accident you can be stuck for hours, certainly happened to me multiple times in the last few years on journeys that should have been no more 20-30 minutes. And even places with a second road, tends to get clogged up when everyone realises the first road is shut. Bridges and tunnels make things worse as you say. Traffic information is helpful especially in areas where you have more options and can plan a diversion, but it’s most useful if you’re driving for non-essential purposes and can find a way to postpone or reschedule the trip. If you have to be at place X by time Y and the area around it has just got totally snarled up, you can at least phone up and apologise for potential lateness in advance, but that’s about it. One reason I have as many meetings online and as few in person as I possibly can.

  42. Self-driving cars: just another version of ‘in a perfectly planned economy everything would be better’.

  43. @MyBurningEars
    I wonder if there will be less traffic post pandemic and driving long distances will be better.
    I really envy people who think traffic is not an issue. They obviously live a long long way from London or Birmingham, Manchester etc.

  44. @david

    Fear it’s one of those things that holds itself somewhat in equilibrium – if the traffic becomes less tiresome, more people hit the road again…

    We’ll see how long the virtual office lasts. Tempting as it may be for firms to vacate expensive office space permanently, some stuff really is better in person.

  45. “Also wondered like @jgh whether there might be certain roads you’re only allowed to access with a vehicle that can run on auto – though hard to see how that works in the UK.”

    It already works in the UK because we already have the legal infrastucture in place, Special Roads, which all motorways are. You are not allowed to use autodrive on the Public Highway, only on motorway-class Special Roads. You would need some infrastructure on entry and exit to let the autocar know that it has entered/exited the motorway, the equivalent of the chopsticks sign that the human driver uses their eyes to detect.

  46. I’m not saying: have roads that are autodrive only. I’m saying have roads that are the only ones that autodrive is allowed on. The chopsticks signs would change from implicitly saying the old signage:
    NO: L-Drivers, Pedal-Cycles, Pedestians, Animals
    to:
    NO: L-Drivers, Pedal-Cycles, Pedestians, Animals
    YES: Autodrive

    And the end-of-chopsticks would be an implicit:
    END OF MOTORWAY RESTRICTIONS
    NO: Autodrive

    When first introduced, signage would probably be best to be plated to explicitly sign the autodrive status, as with the original NO signage.

    See https://www.sabre-roads.org.uk/wiki/index.php?title=NO_Sign

  47. @jgh

    Interesting thanks. Think the issue of transition back to manual control is still being debated – while obviously you could do it at speed provided the car isn’t mid manoeuvre, you’d probably want a safe place to stop in case the driver doesn’t respond to the handover alert (asleep or incapacitated or whatever). So might need a bit more infrastructure than signage only.

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