Why automatic cars aren’t unreservedly good news

Cars weren’t always smart. Back when we proudly wore driver gloves and drove slow enough to say good morning to each passer-by, machines were temperamental, precarious and loaded with idiosyncrasies. Every decade since, they’ve become less so. Crank motors gave way to self-start engines and now we’ve even eradicated the needs for keys. We can just speak smoothly to our engines or use our fingerprints and hey-presto – we-re off.

As a result, each post-motor car generation has had to endure the tired sermonising of the generation before. Cars used to be harder; the driver required more knowledge and skill. Everything is too easy now. A monkey could do it.

Traditional young-old dichotomy aside, the supposition that everything is getting easier – to the detriment of man – isn’t entirely untrue. Our lessening interaction with the tools we use correlates to our advances in tech. And the more is done for us, the more unfamiliar we become. The old will invariably bemoan the new, as their view of the world comes under threat, but to dismiss this creates an equally dangerous philosophy: change is always good.

Those who found the concept of an automatic gear box disturbing have had scarce time to adjust; we’re already onto the next marvel in automation, and this time we’re barely involved. We’re substituting the role of master for that of watcher, even servant. With automatic cars, human presence takes a diminutive role – providing little more than context (i.e. the reason why a car drives from A to B).

It’d be easy to argue that this is just a small step, no more significant than any other. We’ve been pushing for automation since we created machines and systems – driven by the compulsion for convenience and a utopian vision of the future, in which man’s mental energies are freed from the mundane (i.e. commuting). Why drive when you can watch the TV, catch up on the news or message friends?

But this is more than a step. Taking our hands away from the wheel is a minor difference with immense repercussions – symbolic and actual. It changes not only our relationship with cars, as mankind’s essential tool, but how we interact with the moving world.

What will be new and exciting to us will be an impenetrable veil of unknowingness to future generations. The car will be something that just is, like oxygen, to be experienced and not necessarily understood. The windows will be as computer screens, communicating a world beyond immediate reach. 

This is the stuff of Sci-Fi horror films – a dramatic shift in the man-machine paradigm that sees our dependency upon machines increase to the point that their absence is debilitating. 

Only an invisible line separates convenience and dependence. Each machine and system reaches a peak of usability, in which use doesn’t entail undue stress or effort and is unrestricted by complications. Beyond that, however, ‘convenience’ gradually removes the individual from the equation – we depend on it, but it doesn’t depend on us.

This isn’t good change. It’s plausible that one day we won’t even need to learn to drive – it’s only a question of time, progress and familiarity. We’ll relinquish control and depend upon systems we simply don’t understand, unless you happen to be the person designing them.

True safety cannot be secured without some modicum of control. The effect is pernicious; slowly but surely, by using machines as our means of access we’ll reduce our own significance. Places will be backdrops and our awareness filtered through a catalogue of systems and hardware. Unlike the motor car pioneer mourning the tactile experience of rotating a crank handle, we’ll be removed to the point of complete detachment, a virtual experience within the real world.