Right now, inside an unassuming two-storey building in a small city in California, a group of men and women are working on a project that will cause a seismic shift in your life.
Like most workshops, they have lots of diagrams, fancy graphs and, no doubt, some really lovely looking overalls. But that can’t distract from the truth that these great minds – geniuses in their fields – are out to destroy one of our greatest pleasures in life.
This is Google X, a secret facility run by the search engine behemoths, and a few miles down the road from the main Googleplex campus. Behind its red brick walls, over 100 projects are rumoured to be on the boil, from the admirable (green energy from kites) to the improbable (invisible bike helmets), and yes, the much-derided Google Glass – internet-connected specs that will be making an appearance on the streets of Great Britain imminently.
While a pair of high-tech glasses may do little more than alter how we flirt or our ability to multitask on the toilet, there is another project nearing fruition that has Google’s head honchos twizzling their manicured facial hair with glee: the driverless car.
The prototypes look pretty much like any normal motor, with one crucial difference – they’ve done away with the unreliable, error-prone bit of driving (you) and replaced it with cameras and sensors that communicate with other vehicles to ensure it can pick you up from the pub, take you home, and park itself without anyone getting bent round a lamp post.
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“You can count on one hand the number of years it will be before ordinary people can experience this,” said Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, at the public signing of a bill that allowed normal licensed drivers to test the cars on Californian roads. And today it's just been annoucned that after similar test in the UK, driverless cars are going to be allowed on our roads from as early as January 2014.
While you might not take Brin’s prediction seriously, the car industry definitely does – perhaps worried that Google will do to them what it did to poor old Ask Jeeves. Nissan, Japan’s second-largest car maker, has just announced plans to put a driverless car into production that will roll down an assembly line by 2020. Audi, BMW, Volvo and virtually every carmaker going are working on similar prototypes.
It all spells the beginning of the end for driving as we know it. The thrill of hurtling round a tight corner, then ploughing your foot down into the straight; of whizzing down a country road with one hand on the wheel and the other out the window; of navigating tight lanes or endless highways on a roadtrip.
Those days are numbered. These life-affirming experiences are destined to become nothing more than anecdotes we’ll repeatedly force on our grandchildren as we sit on our fat, future arses in an autonomous car that’s delivering us slowly back to our geriatric containment facility.
That’s not to say Google’s project is not highly admirable in its intentions. Since Bridget Driscoll strayed out on to a London road 117 years ago and picked up the honour of becoming Britain’s first road fatality, there have been an estimated 550,000 traffic-related deaths in the UK.
Globally, it’s reckoned 1.2 million meet their fate on roads each year – that’s the equivalent of the 9/11 attacks happening every single day. Google claims that autonomous cars will not just reduce these figures, but eradicate road fatalities all together. Then there’s the huge reduction of emissions, an end to clogged, polluted city centres, and of mind-numbing traffic jams. Getting anywhere will become quicker, safer and less stressful than ever before.
So, in spite of all the good self-driving cars will achieve, why are we still arguing that they’re a bad thing?
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Surely no one can value the thrill of screeching round a hairpin bend 10mph over the speed limit more than the importance of saving human lives? The truth is, there is something much more important than Fast & Furious-style speed kicks at stake here. It’s the jobs.
Former newspaper editor Will Hutton recently wrote in The Observer that increased automation may mean the death of mass employment as we know it. Quoting Thomas Frey, a senior futurologist at the DaVinci Institute, he lists taxi, bus and truck drivers as soon-to-be-extinct occupations – along with all forms of home delivery, waste disposal, traffic police, petrol station workers and more.
It’s the cold hard future of an automated Britain that sci-fi films and novels never warned us about. The dramatic dystopian destinies we were sold by the likes of The Terminator and The Matrix are looking increasingly like bollocks. Yes, we’ll be run by machines, but we won’t be enslaved by them in jelly-filled cocoons or be wiped out by having our own nukes turned against us. They’ll just be pouring our pints, fighting our wars, flying our planes and driving us to the Job Centre where we can plead for work with employment agents (automated ones, of course).
It’s already creeping in now, from your self-service checkouts to unmanned aerial vehicles pulverising suspected terrorists in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, on the sedate streets of Staffordshire, that quiet buzz overhead could be a police drone searching for suspects and saving on costly man-hours in the process.
But we can resist, and there’s no need to strip down to a sweaty vest or form a band of freedom fighters with ’90s wraparound shades to do it. We can start small – stick it to the automated man by brazenly putting unexpected items in the bagging area at the self-service checkout at Tesco, by boycotting staff-free ticket booths, and by not topping up online or choosing to pay at the pump. And for God’s sake, the next time you’re in a posh car, think of your children and their future red-blooded desire to belt inadvisably fast down a country lane, and leave the cruise control well alone.
Words by FHM Editor, Joe Barnes. Follow him Twitter.