x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The air bag: Autonomous cars like Google’s new invention can increase our freedom

Kevin Hackett considers the significance of Google's new autonomous cars.

Google’s autonomous cars open possibilities for drivers. Google/Rex Features
Google’s autonomous cars open possibilities for drivers. Google/Rex Features

When I look back upon my life, there are a few experiences that are, and always will be, pivotal to my personal growth. Marriage, the birth of my son, divorce, becoming a published writer – all things that, for better or worse, have shaped me as an individual. The second that my driving test examiner told me that I had passed and was legally allowed to drive was another one.

When I passed my test, I was just 17 years old and didn’t own a car. Once the examiner had handed me my pass certificate and got out, the car – an old Mini – felt cavernous. Finally, I was allowed to drive a car on my own. No chaperone, no grumpy instructor, no nagging parents telling me what to do anymore – the two-minute journey back to the driving school in that tiny car was one of the most memorable drives that I’ve ever experienced. The sense of freedom, despite the fact that I would have to embark on a 40-minute walk home and would have to beg my mother to lend me her car whenever I wanted to go ­anywhere, was palpable. That’s what driving meant to me: freedom.

At the time, I lived in a rural community in North Wales in the United Kingdom; a place where a car is still a necessity. Precious few taxis, buses and other modes of public transportation make getting around by yourself a must – at least if you want to work. If I’d lived in a city all my life, perhaps the car would have meant nothing to me – who knows? From a very young age, though, I’d wanted to drive; to be in charge of my own journey.

So it was with some interest that I read about the unveiling of Google’s autonomous car last week. Many sections of the world’s motoring press went into meltdown, panic setting in about this bleakest of all futures where car enthusiasts are not permitted to do what we all love doing: driving. Google’s march towards world domination has its good points and bad – the world is at our fingertips these days, but nothing is private any more – and the fact that it wants us to stop driving (but would love to mine us for data whenever we make use of its silly-looking vehicles) is, perhaps, a step too far.

But think about it. Autonomous cars would relieve us of so much stress, allow us to be more productive with our time and could be a far more financially sensible option than buying and running our own cars. You need to get from wherever you are to some other place, so you summon your transportation with the tap of a smartphone. The vehicle turns up, you get in and are taken to point B in complete safety, while you enjoy the views (unlikely) or spend your time surfing the internet or working online (highly likely).

This doesn’t mean the end of driving as we know it. Rather, it is, as Google itself states, a “solution”. And it’s a possible solution to a number of very real problems. City congestion, fatal accidents, environmental pollution, stress – all things that we could rid ourselves of if we didn’t have to drive. If my office happened to be 10 minutes away from where I live, and I had the ability to hop in and out of a driverless car as my daily commute, no way would I choose to drive myself.

But the flip side is that, like many people who actually enjoy driving on the open road, I would also want the freedom to make a road trip on any given weekend. I would still want to enjoy a fast, focused and engaging automobile for nothing more than the sheer pleasure of driving and the freedom that this brings me. There’s that word again: freedom.

Instead of worrying that Google or some other tech giant will remove that from us, consider it as an increase of our personal freedom. The right to choose how we get around will still be there for us, for a very long time indeed. But the car won’t be around forever, so get out there and enjoy it while you still can. Owning a car isn’t a basic human right; it’s a privilege that many cannot afford. Let’s never forget that.


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