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Transport's favourite myth: why we will never own driverless cars

It is often claimed the driverless car revolution is imminent. But all the hype obscures more urgent problems.

It seems that we are on the verge of a driverless car revolution. George Osborne recently announced that a “train” of automatic trucks controlled solely by the leading vehicle would be tested in Cumbria this year, one of eight driverless vehicle projects to receive £20m in funding from the government.

Trials of autonomous cars are already under way in Milton Keynes and Greenwich and far more extensive testing is being undertaken in the US. In recent testimony before Congress, Google claimed that its fleet of 56 autonomous cars had racked up 1.4 million miles over the past six years. The company predicts that autonomous vehicles will significantly reduce the 94 per cent of road accidents that are caused by human error each year and free up much of the 3,000 square miles devoted to parking across the United States.

The revolution, it is often claimed, is imminent. The Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, who wants to build trains with a top speed of 760 miles an hour in California and central Europe, said in December that his “fully autonomous” car would be ready to launch by 2018. All of this has created enormous hype, with the press suggesting that we will soon be able to sit in our cars – or “pods” – while being driven to work, where we will instruct the vehicle to park itself, or take the kids to school.

Yet even the most cursory examination of the present state of driverless car technology and the potential obstacles to its success – legal, social, economic, political and practical – suggests that a takeover of the mainstream transport system is about as likely as the long-awaited arrival of the futuristic jet packs of 1960s comic books.

Take the sensors, for instance. They may work fine in sunny California but could struggle to combat fog, snow and driving rain. Google’s autonomous cars have a somewhat patchy safety record: as of last month, they recorded fewer than 20 accidents, all minor (mostly rear-end shunts) and all, bar one, not the fault of the Google technology. This is slightly above the comparable rate for conventional cars and quite possibly the result of dangers – what if a mouse ran across the road? – that a human being would generally ignore.

However, it is the single incident caused by driverless technology, in a car that collided with a bus, that is most telling. According to Google’s accident report: “The Google AV [autonomous vehicle] test driver saw the bus approaching in the left-side mirror but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the AV to continue.” This implies that the test drivers are still the ones making such decisions and that the cars are not “autonomous”. It raises a crucial problem for the new technology: risk.

Consider an autonomous vehicle trying to move into traffic, a manoeuvre that is impossible without some element of risk. Human beings often do it through some sort of interaction – say, flashing lights, or eye contact – and so an element of risk-taking would have to be introduced for autonomous vehicles, too. Once that happens, accidents will occur, and what parent would send his children off to school in a vehicle with risk hard-wired into its software?

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous. It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

What is this technology for? The widespread assumption that driverless cars will be a shared resource, like the London Santander Cycles, is groundless. People like owning their personal vehicle because it is always available and can be customised to ensure that the child seat is properly in place and the radio tuned to Magic. Google may be right that a few parking lots will become redundant but it has no answer for the possibility that autonomy will encourage more vehicles on to the road.

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother
to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.

So why is George Osborne so interested in this technology? One possibility is that he considers it a way of weakening two of the last remaining bastions of union power: lorry and taxi drivers. Another is that he hopes it will provide a boost for the UK car manufacturing industry. Either way, the revolution, when it comes, will not be driverless. 

Christian Wolmar’s new book, Are Trams Socialist?, will be released next month by the London Publishing Partnership

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.