If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday 7 February 2011

Future Perfect

There's an interesting bit of futurology in the BBC Magazine at the moment, which has an article on developments in car safety. The deal is that, with current technological advances, it may be possible to have a future without fatalities in car accidents, and maybe even no crashes at all.

More than a million people die in car accidents each year but experts in the industry now believe fatal smashes could be eliminated. Some hope there could be an end to car crashes altogether.

Scientists and engineers are developing technology and enhancements to cars that would aid drivers to the extent that crashes would become rarer events. Bad weather conditions and poor judgement would be mitigated by the car itself.

The features discussed are:
  • Automatic braking, using GPS and proximity sensors to detect when another car or object is too close
  • Infrared cameras to monitor the driver's head position and gaze, so that the car knows where you are looking at any given time
  • Virtual crash-test dummies, which can be used to test a massive number of design features in a far shorter time
  • Robot doctors that can allow an A&E specialist to guide ambulance crews at the scene of a crash in the best strategies for dealing with a casualty
  • Cars which can alert the emergency services if they detect something that is not within the normal range of car behaviour (that's a sinister phrase if ever I heard one), and even report likely injuries following a crash.
Sounds great. No-one likes car accidents, or people dying needlessly. So this must all be wonderful and a consummation devoutly to be wished, yes?

I'm not so sure. I am certain that we have the capability to produce, eventually, cars which don't crash, which can't crash. Cars which look after you so well that they won't let you do anything that might result in a loss of control, which monitor the weather and your speed, the terrain you are driving through, and the cars around you, and react instantly as soon as they detect a potential accident. But do we want them?

Relatives and loved ones of people who have died in cars (always the worst people to ask about road safety, in my opinion, as they have no objectivity) will no doubt clamour for all these 'advances' to be included on all new cars. "If it saves just one life ..."

I beg to differ. A life without challenges and risks is no life at all. If cars become, as the article suggests they might, 100% safe by removing all opportunities for the driver to get it wrong, then where will be the pleasure in that? If I want a journey where I have to do nothing but sit and be a passenger, then I will take the train or a bus. If I want the thrills of driving without any potential painful consequences, I will play a video game (life, sadly, doesn't have a 'Back' button). But I ride a bike (and to a lesser extent, drive a car) partly because it is a challenge to my skills, and exercising those skills in a real-life situation enhances my life. Take away the challenge, and you take away the whole experience. I am a lousy passenger anyway.

And, to go a step further, do we want a life without risks? It is said that, to know true happiness, you must also have known true pain. And a sunny day is just another sunny day, unless it is preceded by rain and followed by fog, at which point it becomes a joy and a blessing. I've known people leave the UK for a sunny climate, who have complained that they get 'bored with all the good weather'. Life needs light and shade. All shade is pure misery - but all light is dull as ditchwater, and a kind of hell in another way.

Am I arguing that car accidents and road deaths are a good thing? Probably not, but I can't buy into the idea that life is perfectible either - and if it is, I wouldn't want it to be. Some bad things happen, and we have to live with that. It's what makes us human.

I am reminded of that horrible scene at the end of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, when Alex gets his 'scientific' treatment to cure him of his despicable violence. At the end of it, he is no longer a violent thug, but he has also lost his passionate love of Beethoven, and the implication is that the 'cure' was, if not worse than the disease, then at least an evil compromise.

The future is bland, the future's beige.


  1. Didn't we just see a story about a horrific crash that killed a little girl because people trusted the machine (in this case, a sat nav) more than their own eyes and judgement?

    I recall we did. Clearly, this didn't make anyone think twice.

  2. That was a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the technology. A satnav will tell you how to get somewhere, and if it's wrong or out of date, it will send you the wrong way up a one-way street, or something similarly irritating but harmless. What it does not tell you is that you may make a turn without looking, and that magically that speeding truck will vanish because the satnav says you can turn.

    But nevertheless, a satnav is a guide only. The technology they are talking about here will literally take over and (for example) brake even though you have your foot hard on the gas. You won't have to trust the machine, as you won't have the option - and the machine certainly won't trust you. We are going to be reduced to being passengers in our own lives.

  3. Trust the machine..... Not Bloody Likely!!! In the case Julia mentioned, an out of date database would mean ALL cars turning across oncoming traffic. Humans aren't perfect (I'm certainly not), but I would rather take my chances with them, than a software driven vehicle. And I don't care if it's been programmed by bleedin' Apple rather than Microsnot...

  4. Indeed. When they can give us computers that simply work and don't crash (heh), then I will trust one to get me somewhere. Until then - brains, eyes, hands, feet. In other words, living.

  5. Actually, see any episode of 'Air Crash Investigation' for what can happen when humans blindly trust technology too much.

    Or, on occasion (and a key element in last night's Aeroflot crash case) fail to RTFM...

  6. Now is the time to train to be an ambulance-chasing lawyer.

  7. It's difficult to explain, (Richard has had a good stab at it), but a life from which risk has been removed is hollow.

    I feel strongly about this. I know that many will disagree.

  8. @ Julia - I only ever watch ACI to confirm my illogical prejudice that flying is for birds and not people, and it never disappoints.

    @ Joe - always an eye for the main chance. Good lad.

  9. @Zaphod - you're not alone. If I suggest this to some people, they think I am mad. But there's a big difefrence between risk-seeking and risk management. I would never go bungee-jumping, for example (risk too high for perceived benefits), but I ride a motorbike every day (risk less than benefits). Even if it were possible to remove all risk from life, who wants to live 70 years as a child in a cot?

  10. There is a car safety expert in the US who reckons the perfect safety feature for all cars would be removal of seat belts and the fitting of an 8 inch steel spike sticking out of the middle of the steering wheel. His view is that this safety feature would reduce crashes - I reckon he might be right.

  11. That will be compulsory (with a tip dipped in curare) just ten minutes after I am made Secretary of State for Transport.

    Along with free schoolgirls for bikers.

  12. "Along with free schoolgirls for bikers"

    Bastard!! I'll have to resurrect my old BMW R65...

    I don't have a problem with flying - I DO have a problem with too much automation. Oldrightie will not like me saying this, but I'm much happier in a 70 year old DC3 Dakota, than I would be in a Scarebus. The former doesn't rely on a majority verdict between a bunch of flight computers before it responds to control inputs.

    He will know of the concerns raised in pilots forums that excessive reliance on automation is having a detrimental effect on "real world" flying skills. That's not to say they have disappeared, as the successful ditching in the Hudson river by Captain Sullenberger shows, but he is one of the old school.

    No, I'm worried about the new guys who have done most, if not all, of their training in simulators. They will be the ones who get caught out when things go seriously tits up, and the manual doesn't have a answer.

    This is not far removed from the content of your post.

  13. Always fancied an R65 ...

    Your point about the lack of real-world skills of the newer pilots applies 100% to people who learn to drive in modern cars, I would think. Automation is supposed to take away the dull, repetitive stuff, not suck all the fun out of things.

  14. "Always fancied an R65 ..."

    I'm afraid it's going to need a lot of work on it now. It hasn't been started or ridden for the best part of 10 years. I just don't have the enthusiasm to do anything with it these days.


  15. I would be, if I wasn't bone skint :)

  16. EM Forster - "The Machine Stops". Very prescient.

    Many supposedly more primitive cultures, perhaps making a virtue out of necessity, had a far more balanced attitude towards the whole cyclical nature of life and death. We seem to be headed towards a morbid obsession with simply not dying, rather than actively living. Quantity over quality doesn't sound like such a good deal, especially when there's still a 100% fatality rate waiting at the end of it.

  17. "We seem to be headed towards a morbid obsession with simply not dying, rather than actively living."

    Wot 'e said.


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