The future’s bright, the future’s….posh.

Driverless cars. Once the realm of science fiction, now a firm near-future reality. On a recent Munich Legends team visit to a famous proving ground/track, to record our M1 for a video game, there it was. A driverless car being put through its paces – one assumes for the next stage of testing and approval. I’m not sure, but it may have booked itself in, set up the test, and reported the findings, without any human input. I like to think so. But, as a purveyor of fine classic BMWs – fast ones that are famous for their driver/car symbiosis – it might surprise you to find that I may be a fan. I’m thinking about it.

The concept of being driven around by someone else is, of course, not new. Right up until the seventies, any self-respecting successful film star, or rock manager would make a point of not having a driving license, instead preferring to demonstrate their status by travelling chauffeur-driven. Occasionally they would drive anyway – usually off their faces – gaining extra rock-star points by crashing late at night, usually with a young ‘friend’ or two in tow. The Seventies, eh? In the last days of the horse and carriage, and the early days of the motor car, the roads were a grimy, nasty place – much like today – and decent people didn’t do things as grubby as driving their own transport. It was only from the mid fifties that Rolls Royce even acknowledged that an owner would even contemplate driving his or herself, with the launch of the Silver Cloud. One gets the impression that they launched the concept with a tut and shake of the head. Whatever next?

So, we may have come full circle, except instead of employing an expensive chauffeur – having to have a flat above the stables and all that – we have a computer. Even better, a computer doesn’t look discreetly in the rear-view mirror to see what we’re up to. But I still need to be convinced, and I have some questions. The first one of which is – of course – can I sit in the back? You’ll immediately see how important this is. Can I buy a left-hand drive…er…driverless car? Can I sit in the right-hand seat and do silly things, pretending to drive? Are there restrictions on what I can do while we’re going along? Can I go to sleep? Can my wife and I ‘celebrate’ our wedding anniversary?

I read somewhere recently that some Silicon Valley supernerd is developing a computer that responds to our brain-waves – essentially leading to a thought-controlled car. Now this is a worry. Fine if its going to need a specific thought- instruction type thing. But what if it responds to my slightly subconscious-type thoughts? Stuff that just passes through my mind? That would be a disaster. My wife will tell you exactly what its like having me as a passenger – and I don’t think its much fun. Do we really want thought-controlled cars running red lights, cutting up busses, driving over pavements to avoid jams, using bus lanes, running cyclists into the ditches? Luckily my middle-aged brain is able to dismiss the adolescent nonsense that still buzzes around in my head and ignore my frustrations in modern traffic. I wouldn’t want my car to take me literally. ‘Go on, you can get past in that gap…’ needs to be tempered with ‘would you shut up and let me drive?’. I’m not sure a computer is allowed to be that rude.

Let’s face it – few modern commutes are much fun. One hour in an endless traffic jam in freezing fog, filthy roads, angry motorists, accidents waiting round every bend. Now imagine sleeping all the way. Blinds up, bit of Bach on the record player thingy, elegant Wee Willie Winkie hat and silk pyjamas, maybe even a hot water bottle. That’s my kind of commute. But what happens if there is an accident? Can I stay in the back and let my car simply email the details to the relevant authorities? I’m picturing two bleary eyed figures standing there in the road, scratching their heads – ‘you any idea what happened?’ ‘No idea mate, I was fast asleep in the back’. Will my car refuse to admit liability?

I’m warming to the idea of a life of high luxury – calling my car to pick me up from outside the pub (it’s a place where we used to go to meet people and drink – but that’s not important right now) or sending the car to pick the kids up from school – I’m assuming that since it drives itself, I don’t even need to be there? Pick my parents up from the airport? This will be a win-win, as my mother has a habit of bursting into tears whenever I touch the accelerator. A Motorsport fan she is not.

Last but not least, of course, there’s the small matter of speed. I’m assuming that as driverless cars are all going to work together, and drive with perfect precision, they’ll be able to go as fast as they like? Take out the human error from motorway or closed-road driving, and what’s the point of speed limits? Can I buy a faster driverless car than my neighbour? Let’s be honest, there’s a reason people pay a premium to drive a BMW, a Ferrari, or a Focus RS. Take away our competitive streak, as a buying public, and what are we really left with? If every car is essentially driven at the same speed, arriving at the same time and driving in an identical fashion, what will be the point in a performance car? Where does that leave a company like BMW?

Well for the moment at least, they’re pretty safe. I’m not sure I want to be driven around in a car made by a company that made its name by providing images of cute cats, with some pornography thrown in (Google) or a company who specialises in providing taxi services in 20 year old Toyota Priuses, usually found driving the wrong way up a one-way street (Uber). And that’s with a driver on board.

No, for the moment we’ll have to keep slogging away behind the wheel, staying awake and fully clothed. But whenever I think of the future now, I’m going to think cut glass brandy glasses and cravats, picnics by the river and cuddles in the back seat. Perhaps a driverless car won’t be as bad as we think. And, of course, mine will be faster than yours.

Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (March 2021 issue)

Straight Six Magazine March 2021