Joy ride

1st March 2018

I don’t remember much about my first driving test, other than shortly before I took it was the first time I ever reversed into a parking bay. Maybe my instructor knew he’d see me again, and figured I’d have more time to practice.

I do, however, vividly remember thinking “oh well, I’ll nail it next time”, before being chauffeured home by my instructor and block-booking another set of lessons.

I passed on my second attempt, as I think all the best drivers do. I was convinced I’d made one major mistake too many, and so relaxed into the rest of the drive, chatting with the tester about the merits of giving and sending of cards. I’d like to think my looking into the rear-view and side mirrors every three seconds contributed to my success, but I secretly think he was chuffed at being called an old romantic for sending his wife of 20-odd years a Valentine’s.

And yet, this rite of passage is at risk of fading into obscurity for future generations, thanks to advancing technology. Call me a dinosaur, but I think that’s more than a little sad.

Citroen LNA
Not quite my first car, but close enough

Car companies around the world, as well as tech firms such as Waymo (which is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company), and Uber are investing massive amounts of money into automated driving systems, with some expecting to hit the roads as early as 2020 — albeit with human drivers still required just in case…

Vehicles so laden down with sensors they really shouldn’t be able to move at all have been travelling about cities in the US and China for a few years now, as the technology undergoes millions of miles of tests. All the while, manufacturers and impossibly clever people are bringing this technology closer and closer to everyday life.

Driving instructors don’t seem keen on talking about the death of their industry. The Association of Driving Instructors passed on my request to chat to someone.

Either they’re supremely confident self-driving is far enough away for them not to be concerned, or they’re all hiding under their beds, gnawing on L plates in terror.

But autonomous cars are coming. It will start with taxis. Rather than ringing up a furiously expensive local firm to request some bolshy stranger with more opinions than Twitter drive you home, we will tap an app on our smartphones, which will send a request for a self-driving car to do the deed instead.

Ordinary folk will face a stark choice: continue to pay through the nose to own a car, or rely on a ride-hailing service

Next, it will be buses — the sweaty, stressed-out driver will be replaced with — well, who knows? A screen? A blow-up doll reminiscent of the Airplane! movie?

Finally, and probably without much fuss, the self-driving revolution will reach ordinary folk, who will face a stark choice: continue to pay through the nose to own a car, or rely on a ride-hailing service, such as Uber (assuming it’s still in existence), Lyft or another similar company to sort out the business of getting them from A to B.

It all sounds very sci-fi fabulous, and while that may well be so, it’s also going to mean the death of the driving test.

While some may be doing the dance of joy at not having to sit that theory test or never having to contemplate trying to keep their hands at 10 to 2 while reversing round a corner, only those who have done all this and lived to tell the tale might understand my sense of melancholy.

Learning to drive is one of the biggest leaps into adulthood most people can ever take. It’s a passport to freedom, even though it comes with enormous responsibility — although that’s the part driving lessons seem to forget, at least when it comes to young, male drivers in their 20s.

It is the opportunity to emulate a thousand cool movies, to wind the window down and sing your heart out to your favourite tunes, to be the only one of your mates with a crap car.

To this day, more than 20 years after I passed, I can still feel the cold trickle of sweat running down my back as I inched into Stoneferry roundabout in Hull

Driving is the stuff of dreams, and the test that opens the door to them there is unlike any other hurdle people face.

When I was learning to drive, roundabouts were my absolute nightmare. To this day, more than 20 years after I passed, I can still feel the cold trickle of sweat running down my back as I inched into Stoneferry roundabout in Hull, stalling EVERY SINGLE TIME because the onslaught of traffic appeared to move faster than the speed of light.

It’s appropriate that a roundabout presented me with my very first bum-clencher of a driving moment, when, not long after passing my test, I approached a one a smidge too fast. I needed to go straight on and did — flying into the middle of it as I went. I caught some actual air.

Luckily, only my pride and a forlorn hedge were hurt.

Had we collided, my last words would have been ‘We’re dead! We’re dead!’

Exhilarating an incident as it was to survive, I learned an important lesson that day: brake well before coming up to a roundabout, no matter how cocky you’re feeling, which I never would have picked up during normal lessons and never would have happened had I been in a self-driving car.

The same goes for when I almost rammed the car in front of me while taking a bunch of colleagues home and, had we collided, my last words would have been “We’re dead! We’re dead!”.

Or the time I turned right and ended up on the wrong side of the road, only to find a handy police car right behind me, whose occupants happily set me straight.

Passing my driving test not only meant I didn’t have to take an unreliable train to work and still face a mile-and-a-half walk, it opened up a whole new life, despite the fact my first car was beige, looked like a children’s drawing and its top speed was a dizzying 54mph — that was fun on the motorway, I can tell you.

Self-driving cars rob new generations of an experience that has contributed so much to western culture

Self-driving cars, while no doubt sleek, shiny and imbued with the ability to make us think we’re living in Minority Report or Blade Runner, also rob new generations of an experience that has contributed so much to western culture, it’s hard to overstate it.

Imagine Thelma and Louise, all those cops-and-robbers chase sequences, endless, eye-popping James Bond stunts, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for crying out loud, all in the hands of robots and artificial intelligence. The void is incalculable, while a swivelling seat and a dashboard full of touchscreen tricks just doesn’t offer the same thrill.

So, for anyone sweating over their theory test, or for those who are on their ninth practical and wondering if it’s worth it, let me tell you: it absolutely is.

1st March 2018