Can we enjoy a Drive Please?

A few years back I saw a movie about an air race across the English Channel, it was called, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”. This movie was based in the period before World War I. It was a comedy, so obviously there were exaggerations. This movie described men from each nation as type casts, the flamboyant but god fearing catholic Italian, the loverboy French, the prim and proper formal Englishman and the struggling dreamy eyed, world saving American.

But what caught my fancy was the description of the German. A very disciplined, mechanical and by-the-book guy. This character was the butt of most of the jokes in the movie too. Why? Because he was so mechanical and predictable, like a machine. What differentiates humans from machines is the ability to think and do stuff you want to do. Ability to control machines and not be controlled by machines.

With this background, I want to move on to another area of human behaviour. The respect for and the need to display skills. In the ages before automobiles, people rode horses. There were horsemen and then there were skilled horsemen who became legends. Humans participate in sports at various levels, mainly pitting their skills against others, be it running, jumping, controlling a ball or controlling a bat.

All corporate talk about skill sets, skill development and what not. Having skills is so very basic to human nature. Not only that, there is a basic need to display these skills too. These skills characterise the person. In advanced countries, even if you want a license to ride a motorcycle, there are different licenses to ride bikes of increasing displacement based on the skills required to ride them. There was a time when cars were characterised by the skills required by a driver to control them and drive them safely. A Porsche 911 required very high levels of skills to control it because it had a rear engine and behaved differently from other normal (front engine) cars.

 With the advances in electronics and computers, there have been a slew of developments in the field of mechatronics and car control. We have ABS, EBD, ESR, SCP, HCC… and another gazillions of acronyms. All these acronyms are just taking away the control of the car from the driver. They control the tyre spin, they control torque distribution etc etc etc. They improve safety. I am not saying safety is not important. Yes it is and all these devices and systems have helped improve safety on road and reduced fatalities. They are good, keep it up.

But now we have Google and other companies, including some famed auto companies developing autonomous cars. Cars that will drive themselves using sensors, lasers, cameras, radars and what not. They will follow lanes, navigate to destinations, talk to other cars on road, Toyota even wants its cars to smile and flash headlamps when they come across other cars. 

 Even in Formula 1, the epitome of automotive competition, the electronics are in control. Even the launch of the car at start is controlled by a launch control software. Are we paying through our nose to watch driver’s compete their driving skills against each other or to watch PCBs (printing circuit board) competing against each other in Formula 1. I’d rather do that on my PC.

With cars becoming autonomous, which is not a very distant reality, all you have to do is sit in your car and ask it to drive you to a certain destination while you read news on your tablet. It will drop you at the porch of your office and go park itself. When you want to return, you call it again using an app on your phone and it will come pick you up. And all this is not science fiction, mind you, these are technologies under development with some success. You must have seen the advertisements of Volkswagen Passat parking itself.

Again, I am not against safety and I am not against convenience. But I belong to a group that loves automobiles. I love to listen to the changes in the engine sound when I change gears, the surge in acceleration when I blip the engine before slotting the next gear. I want to be able to decide when I want to change gears, when I want a little bit of drift. I like to feel the car’s rear stepping out and enjoy the feeling of getting it back in line myself.  I should have an option to develop some driving skills and test them when I want. As a rider enjoys and prides in controlling his horse, I want to be able to control my car, else I would opt for a chauffeur. Because, the price at which these new fangled cars are available, if I could afford them, I could definitely afford a chauffeur. By the way, the name for the software controlling one such autonomous car is Jack. I’d rather have a human Jack drive me around with whom I could discuss the weather at least (now don’t put that as an option in the software!).

Please let me remain a thinking, playing human with skills and not a robot working in a production system which uses a controlled transport system to reach his job, works there like a robot following systems and procedures by the book. I want some freedom, somewhere I can be in control of my life and my machine. Please do not question my existence as a human being by letting electronics control everything…even my drive.

As a person who loves to drive, I think such self driven talking cars should be left to Disney and Pixar. If you think that people don’t know how to drive and need to be made safe by being driven by technology, please do not given them license to drive. If you do not like to drive, please use public transport but leave the car in the driver’s control. 

Cdr Rajesh Sinha (Retd)'s profile on LinkedIn