Sunday, 10 October 2010

Autopilot

Seeing all the fuss about Google experimenting with cars that drive themselves (cue eerie music) got me thinking.

Much of public transport drives itself these days: the Docklands Light Railway is unmanned, in most other trains the driver is only there to supervise. Even commercial aircraft are fly-by-wire, auto-navigation, Instrument Landing System -equipped behemoths. Airline pilots don't fly the plane so much as ensure it flies itself properly, and when it doesn't, they know what to do: they manage by exception, which is no less exceptional than their predecessors, it simply takes the mundane bits out of their jobs.

So why are cars different?

For Americans it's obvious: their society and cities are all relatively modern and shaped around the automobile. They are a combustion society, whether it's handguns or engines. Cars are deeply personal to the American individual: kids can 'take a roadtrip' before they can drink. But the speed limit in the US is 55 mph; US cars are not kitted for speed and handling, like European cars, they are built for comfort; for crossing states the size of Europe. Would Americans mind if their car could auto-drive them the 4 hour journey to Disney World on Labor Day weekend? Probably not. Would they be happy to take the train? Certainly not. Having a car is emblematic of the constitutional rights of the individual.

For Europeans, it's a bit more complicated. European cities are not designed for automobiles, with simple grid patterns, wide avenues and ample parking. European roads can be small and twisty, requiring nippy, agile cars, as opposed to big engine, comfort cars - formula one instead of NASCAR. Yet European public transport is generally excellent: even the French have rapid, efficient trains. Most Europeans don't have an issue with public transport, either - possibly because of the history of this efficiency. I've inter-railed throughout Europe and quite enjoyed the whimsical dilemma of standing at Munich station and opting to go to Rome instead of Vienna because the Rome train was 40 minutes sooner. Driving for Europeans is a pleasure, as much as driving for Americans is an expression of personal freedom. European cars are far more popular in the US than US cars are in Europe, not because US cars are crap, but because Europeans, and even shrewd Far Eastern car manufacturers, make cars fun to handle.

At the extreme cars are now intimate: they are no longer a way to get you from A to whichever B takes your fancy, in comfort, but they are almost pornographically personal symbols of status, pleasure and loyalty. To automate that is to steal its soul.

And yet... I remember seeing the first fly-by-wire airline at the Farnborough Airshow, and my dad trying to explain the significance of this rather mundane looking passenger aircraft. He, an experienced fighter and test pilot, was positively effervescent about this technology. There was no hint of it spoiling the art/enjoyment of flying aircraft, of robbing him of the enjoyment of flying. It was all about safety. This aircraft could do things that no pilot could do: it could fly amazingly close to stall point, it could automatically trim the aircraft, should an engine fail, in milliseconds. The point was: you could tell the machine what you wanted to do, and it would figure out the details. I remember when power-steering was first introduced in cars and the skeptics said that it took away the 'feel' of the car. Yet how many luxury sportscars today DON'T have power steering? None.

Auto-drive, like autopilot, can still be switched off. But, as any individualist knows, it's nice to have the choice.
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