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Cars: To drive or not to drive?

30 Aug 2015

I don't own a car and on the rare occasions I need one, I rent. So I get to drive lots of different cars and most of them brand new. In my daily slog I don't use a car, it's trains, trains, trains. Wouldn't use a car even if I owned one. Which in hindsight is probably why I enjoy driving so much.

This summer I got to drive a lot in Greece and the UK. All the rentals came equiped with cruise control (for the curious: a Pegeuot 307, a Honda Jazz and a Ford Kuga) and initially the novelty of the feature was a fun game. Then I drove on the M62 in England and was glad for it because it made obeying the draconian speed limits simpler and easier.

The empty expanse of a three lane motorway stretched infront of me and begged me to drop my foot on the gas pedal like a lead weight. Cruise control kept me in check. And then I got bored. Driving isn't really fun on the motorway.

I enjoy complex things and driving is one of the most complex activities we undertake: In a manual transmission car it requires the coordinated but independent actions of all four limbs while processing audio and visual sensory input and all of this moving at high speeds in a chaotic system.

An automatic transmission takes the left foot out of the equation, cruise control does the same for the right (for certain motorway stretches - don't ever use cruise control on the mountains of Greece, it won't turn out OK).

It's an approximation of how it will feel in a self-driving car. Only it's not, because you 're still on constant alert, actively scanning with peripheral vision, judging the relative speeds of cars in front, steering etc. All I can say is, bring me the self-driving car, I don't like this stressful in-between state.

I am all for self-driving cars, even considering the downsides. The benefits are overwhelming.

Imagine an electric self-driving car: It needs no transmission, no pedals, no steering wheel. It can be symmetric, doesn't need to have a designated front or back. It's going to be lighter and roomier, will move faster through roads with no traffic jams, consume less energy and have better active/passive safety than anything with a slightly sleepy, distracted driver.

Driving should be consigned to a hobby, much like riding horses is. Riding horses is unarguably the more useful skill to have in a post-apocalyptic society but I find the complexity of driving appealing.

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