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Letter From The UK: An Autonomous Fairy Story

Letter from the UK

Between these very virtual pages you will find dissent. Some esteemed colleagues are looking toward a bright new autonomous future, forged in the white heat of automotive technology. Others, like road knights of old, prefer the six-speed stick shift on the floor and two human eyes on the road ahead. I am firmly in the old-school group. Fortunately, in this regard at least, I am a couple of thousand miles away from the heart of Automoblog and the futurists can’t get to me.

Survey Says

Right now the autonomous lobby has the floor. With all the recent announcements – including one every five minutes from Elon Musk (who I firmly believe is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld in disguise) about the massive investments in driverless cars, it is nice to know there is one company that, in a way, sides with me. Mazda.

This is an auto outfit that plays by its own rules. They make some good cars and they don’t seem to be swayed by trends particularly. The Japanese car giant believes that driving is an ability people want to keep. As any gearhead will tell you, it is a skill that can be fun as well as functional, and many motorists don’t want to lose it and find themselves in a convoy of conveyances all chattering away to each other and getting nowhere fast.

A survey across the European Union commissioned by Mazda has shown quite clearly a very large majority of drivers still want to drive themselves, even with self-driving technology available. In fact, a scant 29 percent actively welcome the arrival of autonomous vehicles. This flies in the face of all that we are told. I’m not paranoid (although I am pretty sure they are on my case) but it indicates to me a sense that, in order to gain total control over the roads, governments would rather like us to believe that this technology will save us from ourselves.

2017 Mazda MX 5 Miata RF 28
Photo: Mazda North American Operations.

Safety First

Many think as I do that auto technology should act, at best, as an aid to safety, available when needed to avoid accidents but with the driver in control of the driving process. This keeps the exhilaration of the act and retains the freedom of the road. Much of this technology is already here and available on our cars anyway. Subaru’s “Eyesight” for example, is brilliant. Most of us have no objection to an extension of this if it saves lives. What gets to folk is the “hands off” approach we are being encouraged to accept. I truly doubt experienced drivers will readily relinquish control to this level.

One surprising aspect of the Mazda survey is how there is no evidence of greater support for self-driving cars in any younger age demographic across Europe generally. For research purposes, the age groups were split: 18 to 24, 25 to 34, and 35 to 44. No group stood out in favor, when it is usual for youth to be more readily accepting of new technology. What does that tell you? Driving is about much more than just getting from A to B. There is danger that simply going for a drive, like Frank Zappa cruising for burgers just for the hell of it, could become a forgotten pleasure.

46614 Autonomous IONIQ Concept
Photo: Hyundai Motor America.

What Does The Future Portend?

Of course, I am maybe getting a little ahead of events. Although there is a powerfully global and by-and-large well-meaning lobby for the drive to driverless, it seems to me the reality of it is still a long way off. Sure, there are public road tests underway but I can’t see it coming to fruition in this decade. There are just too many variables on our roads, and the one thing autonomous technology does not have that we puny humans still possess is that sixth sense; that sixth sense that all is not well. Any practised driver will tell you this.

It is even possible to envisage a scenario whereby car manufacturers will quit the research while they’re ahead on the basis that, ultimately, it simply won’t be worth their while. Mazda clearly isn’t sure. I wonder.

In the official, authoritarian world that dislikes the idea of driving for pleasure and debases the role of the car in our family lives, the question has to be asked of autonomous, or indeed any other technology: just because they can, have they stopped to think whether they should?

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite