Several Reasons to Like (the Idea of) the Driverless Car

When I first read about driverless cars I dismissed the idea as just another gimmick from the hard-up, planet-wrecking, machismo-fueled, turbo-charged turd-makers we call the motor industry.

A driverless car, not hopelessly lost

A driverless car, not hopelessly lost

Another hunk of metal sold to us as a lifestyle choice and an extension of our personalities, I thought. Another way to crush the humans. An exciting new range of grey, blue and black people containers that force everyone to cede power to a computer, which then couriers you along the rush hour motorway at 6 mph, saving you the bother raising your weary head.

They don’t even want you to hold on to the wheel and pretend. They want to remove what small vestiges of joy are left to someone travelling on four wheels.

And anyway, we already have driverless cars. They are called trains.

So I thought.

Later, however, I was persuaded by one or two people who’d thought quite deeply about this technology to not be so glib.

If your instant reaction to this whole concept was but I rather like driving, well that was mine too. Except I don’t.

Driving is a joyless, anxious chore. When I drive I don’t feel like James Bond, I feel like an idiot participating in a terrible conspiracy, often at very low speed.

My dream car, the machine I admired from childhood, I now look at as a sort of abomination. Driving is a 70s dream. We have to let it go.

My motoring dream from childhood.

My motoring dream from childhood.

Driving can be a joy, but so can a playing computer game. A year or two from now you might get to decide which you would rather be doing as you commute down the M11.


Think about how our mostly rubbish towns and cities became so utterly tiresome and rubbish. It’s almost entirely because we gave cars top priority.

Cars need access, cars need options, cars need car parks and ring roads and one-way systems and traffic lights and signage and more lanes and more barriers.

The Cones of Despair welcome you to Crap Town Anywhere

Behold the Orange Cones of Despair / welcome to Crap Town Anywhere

Knock this down and modernise was the mantra, build another bypass. Inner and outer ring roads became like fortress walls and moats, blocking people from their public spaces.

What happened to our beautiful river front? Mr 70s decided it should be a dual carriageway.

Crap Signage

Crap Signage

Petrol Heads everywhere seem to hate the idea of Driverless Cars. And I think it’s because the average suburban Clarksonoid is so incensed that I decided to listen a little closer to this argument.

About 2000 people a year are killed on our (UK) roads. It used to be a lot higher. Those deaths are almost never due to mechanical failure. It’s almost always human error.

I imagine if that dropped to say 20 a year because there was no human error.

Imagine ‘the city’ being able to talk to every car and every car being able to talk to the city. Imagine how the city could guide the flow of traffic to maximum effect, avoiding the local annual silly hat parade or the route of a charity three-fifths marathon (they have those, right?).

The city and your car would know exactly where the nearest available parking space was, then let someone else know the minute you had vacated it. (How much of your life have you spent prowling for a space?)

Imagine all the electric vans making silent deliveries while the city sleeps, so that they are not part of the rush-hour dash.

Imagine the white-van-man has nothing to do on his way to work but stare out of the cab window…well no, don’t imagine that.

White van man

‘Show us your traffic cones, gorgeous!’ – the White Van Man

Imagine the city knows you and your car, where you commonly go, what time, and how long you tend to stay there before returning. Tap into that info and it sounds like you have the perfect basis for a car-pooling app, or a hitch-hiking revival.

But perhaps hitch-hiking with an eBay-style ratings system…

Megadeath1998 is 100% a nice passenger and needs a lift to Ashby de la Zouch… …You go there now and then. Can you take him along? He will chip in £5 for petrol via paypal. Don’t forget to leave positive feedback.

Imagine children allowed to play in the street again.

Imagine approaching the multi-storey car park, except now you get to climb out at the entrance to the cinema while your car goes up those 11 tedious floors.

Imagine driving to the pub but being driven home.

Imagine all the signage and clutter they could remove from your town or city because driverless cars obey the rules and know where they are going.

This might all seem a long way off right now and a little far fetched, but technologies like this have a habit of starting life as impractical, too costly and inferior to the current system. But as we’ve seen so often they can quickly overtaking everything.

Digital Cameras were once too expensive and not good enough. So were mobile phones. Then suddenly they overtook, like some angry silicon-based Clarkson on his way to sale at Halfords.

Things that might be consigned to history? Electronic motorway signage.

Things that might be consigned to history?

Technologies like this also have a habit of dismantling  a lot of old familiar infrastructure, and permanently. Look at this picture and image what that might mean. And the Government is already preparing the way.


The future of documentary film-making? – Published: 28 Apr 2010

Prison Valley is a documentary you watch online. Only, you don’t just watch it, you sort of play it too. Beyond the short, elegantly shot intro, you must then create an account to proceed.

What happens next is completely engrossing and immersive. As you click around and begin your exploration, you start to think this is how documentaries must be made now. It’s like when they added sound to silent movies, the future of docos is here.

It was all done, as far as I understand, with a digital slr camera and some tremendous skill and research.

More background about the project here…

The French duo David Dufresne and Philippe Brault decided to produce a documentary on the issue of incarceration in Colorado.

But, they didn’t just throw up a passive, hour-long, badly compressed web video. Instead, the end product became an interactive documentary with user-submission tools throughout and availability on multiple platforms…

What ‘Makes’ People Cheat – Published 3 Mar 2008

Interesting article in the New York Times (skinny Observer version, Sunday 2nd March) on some research done by Kathleen D Vohs

The upshot of which seems to suggest the more controlling a society is, or is perceived to be, the more people will be dishonest, or justify dishonesty.

Conversely, when people feel they are free to make their own choices, on the whole they tend to make ethical ones.


Jodrell Bank and Penny Pinching Lunacy

08.42: BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme reports: The future of Jodrell Bank, Britain’s leading centre for astrophysics, is under threat due to government cuts in science funding.

Jodrell Bank

There’s magically £9.3bn (a conservative estimate of the real cost) to pay for the Olympics. The UK’s famous network of radio telescopes needs just £2.5m.

Funding cuts for the arts too is big news at the moment. Britain doesn’t need art and science, seems to be the message here. It just needs shopping centres and buckets of fried chicken.

Full story in The Times.


I Thought This Was Kinda Sweet

Nice that he wasn’t attacked by chickens. Did you ever see such serene muppets?


A visitor‘ left this comment on 19 Mar 08
Quite a lot of the muppets I work with look that serene on a daily basis.

HD Ready and Waiting – Published 24 Sep 2007

A lot of people have bought HD Ready tellies recently. Most of them probably watch their TV of an evening and think ‘…wonder what High Def TV actually looks like on this thing?’

They sit and wonder because there is no HD TV to watch.

It’s really not worth buying a HD DVD player until a) we know which HD format has won the HD vs Blu-ray battle and b) there are more films than just Doom and The Chronicles Of Riddick: The Director’s Cut available to buy.

What I didn’t fully realise was that it’s perfectly possible to send HD TV through the air, the way Telly usually travels. It’s just not possible to send very much of it.

Ofcom, the Telly Regulatory Board, wants high def channels on digital terrestrial TV (Freeview). We the people do too, surely.

But there is an argument going on about this right now: cram three or four High Def channels on Freeview, along with all the channels that are already there, or launch a whole new multiplex (a bunch of channels on a broadcast frequency).

This second option would involve millions of squids, probably a lot of wire, and many of us having to invest in a new TV ariel. You may remember this ariel problem happened before, when digital TV first arrived. (Cost me £95 quid to get mine sorted, sat down to watch Granada Men and Motors and, boy, did I feel short-changed.) 

My view is that I just want to see some HD – so pick the quick option, please.

New Job and Dan Corbett

Started a new job last week (which I sort of hate already, hope they don’t read this blog). In this new role I have a TV on my desk. I was cheered up by seeing Dan “Nureyev of the Isobars” Corbett, the world’s most graceful weatherman.

Dan Corbett

Some greenery and a lake

And the office has quite a relaxing artificial setting too. Which is nice and makes me think of Logan’s Run.

Get your face out of my Facebook – Published 26 Apr 2007

Another day, another new online community. I joined facebook yesterday. I didn’t really know why or what I’d get out of it. I just knew everyone else was doing it and I went with the flow.

Strikes me that these things are like a kind of hula hoop craze from the 50s. Some stick and some don’t.

Everyone suddenly had a flickr account (it was easy to see the point of that), then a myspace (less so with that one), now a facebook… 

I joined a community called Kaboodle and one called Digg a few months back and never, at any stage, fully understood their purpose, just did what the Romans were doing.

What I instantly felt uneasy about about with facebook was the assumption that I want all my friends and all my family in constant contact. It is uplifting to hear from friends, and that’s what we want from this sort of thing, a little uplift at various points throughout the day.

But at times Facebook feels like I’ve signed up for an ongoing invasion of privacy.

It doesn’t seem to account for the fact that people like to have moats around their social groups. Facebook doesn’t seem to get that actually you might love someone to bits but you don’t want to have them in your virtual social circle – all the time.

Or that in might be a bit uncomfortable when they try to latch on to someone they don’t know in your lists of friends.

The concept of “friend” is like the concept of “liking a song”. There are gradations. Some are with you for life, some you like for a week and then seem pointless. But all are treated equally with facebook. And it’s near impossible for a polite person to reject someone who asks to be ‘added as a friend’. 

I’d hate it if someone did that to me.

Anyway, the answer might be the next craze. What ever it is, it’ll take a little pressure off being part of this one. I’m looking forward to where you share the shape, colour and density of your morning plop, with your mates, some people from work and then your mum and dad.

Web 2.

More Not-Evil Robots – Published: 4 Jan 2007

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Broken!

opportunity-mars-roverBoth Spirit and Opportunity – the incredibly well-built Mars Rovers – continue into their fourth year on the red (actually grey) planet.

Not only are they still working, they occasionally get software updates transmitted to them, much the same way you might upgrade the ‘ware’ on your mobile phone.

I imagine they need to wander about quite a bit to find a good signal.

Between them they’ve sent back about 170,000 pictures of Mars. Well done Rovers.

Sending so many pictures back from a trip to quite a dull place makes you robots more human than you could ever comprehend. 

…And thanks to Dave for shattering my illusions about the Asimo robots (see links). So they fall over? All I can say is they are better at going upstairs than Daleks.

Lovely, Lovely Robots – Published: 20 Dec 2006

Asimo robotModern life is rubbish. It can’t be argued, it just is.

That said, some recent inventions are so unbelievably cool I find I’m awestruck. Like Honda’s Asimo robots. They walk up stairs, they wave their chunky hands, they carry drinks on trays, just like we always wanted robots to do.

Maybe I’m sick, but I just can’t wait for one of these shiny angelic mechanoids to go mental and kill someone.

Wrong, I know. But you just can’t grow up on a diet of Judge Dread and Star Wars and not feel that these little fellas need to run amok in the Honda staff canteen before they can graduate to the designation of ‘proper robot’.

And I’m sure they’d be very efficient killers. Honda doesn’t build rubbish.


Tim‘ left this comment on 4 Jan 07
Actually I read up on this and there was an instance of a robot killing a human as far back as the mid 70s. It was on a car plant production line. The robot just crushed the guy. Cold, evil, emotionless robot. Nice, oily, dead human.
A visitor‘ left this comment on 28 Dec 06
Do you think if they could speak they would have the same slow, deep, gravel voice as the guy in the Honda advert? “Hmmmmmm………………………howwwwwwwwwwww about sommmmmeeeee……………….cofffeeeeeeeeeeee my maaaaaaaaaaster…”
That would drive me insane. “Get a fucking move on and say what you want to say!!!”
Dave‘ left this comment on 25 Dec 06
I’m sorry to break this to you, but unfortunately, the future hasn’t quite arrived yet…