Why the modern motor car is driving me around the bend
I was in provincial France recently and my kindly host allowed me to drive his impressive-looking car sitting in the driveway. It was one of those people-carriers with all the latest mod cons and, as I'm always game for a driving adventure, I was delighted with the idea of powering through Provence in such a fancy vehicle.
Now, I would not wish to sound a note of ingratitude about driving a state-of-the-art SUV. But it has to be said that modern cars are bossy. They take away all driver or individual initiative. They lecture you at every turn. They direct your parking manoeuvres with a kind of diagrammatic camera, and warn you with beep-beep-beep sensor signals if you are near to another vehicle.
This fabulous jalopy (which has no ignition key, just a kind of square disc you shove in an aperture where the handbrake used to be) provides you with a little screen tutorial before you move off.
A message appears to ask you if you have acquainted yourself with the rules of the road and if you know what you are about in taking this motor on the road. Yes, I know. Don't treat me like a fool.
All cars - except endearingly ancient ones - now order you to fasten your seat belt before you move off. I am, more or less, in favour of seat belts - though there's an interesting theory offered by the risk expert John Adams that the safest way to drive a car would be with a spike sticking out from the centre of the steering wheel. Seat belts save lives, but do we have to be ordered to wear them by a machine? Who's in charge here?
As for when the super-duper modernissimo car starts on its sensor noises during a parking session, I feel like retorting that I am able to assess spatial capacity without being directed by a flipping robot.
Then there is the GPS - that's Global Positioning System - which is now obligatory. Never use one: I'd prefer to factor in my "getting lost time" on a journey, or even to pull up and ask a local native for directions.
The sat-nav is the enemy of the map-reading part of the human brain, which, like every other brain part, depends upon exercise and use for its competence.
A satellite in the sky is taking over from our own initiative in locating ourselves on this earth. Soon, a generation will be born which doesn't know how to read a map. Road signs in many smaller places are already beginning to disappear, because everyone is expected to have a sat-nav.
Within five years, it is said, driverless cars will be commonplace and we'll be taken from A to B by a machine operating on algorithms. It's being claimed that one of the advantages of the driverless car is that it will make the drink-driving laws obsolete: if the vehicle is doing all the steering, the human being within may read, relax, enjoy a gin and tonic, or settle down to a snooze. In other words, the machine will take over all personal responsibility.
How nostalgic we shall become for the days when a motor car required a real degree of human skill. A motorist needed to be able to open up the bonnet of the vehicle and see if the cooling system was working. He - or she (there have been many ace female drivers, including Giorgina Bingen Citroen, as well as one of my aunts, who could park a Bentley on a postage stamp) - needed to know how to mend a puncture and change a wheel: they also needed to rotate the wheels so the back wheels had a turn at the front of the car, and vice versa.
They needed to know how to double de-clutch and to listen for the most sensitive change in the revving engine which would herald a problem with the carburettor, or something amiss with the exhaust, or the accelerator cable.
You used to see men tinkering with their car's insides over a weekend; sometimes lying underneath the chassis and fixing stuff. Old-style cars often had to be tinkered with to keep them running.
But the amateur can't do much tinkering with a modern car, because the insides are now all based on computerised systems.
My uncles were handy with a thing called a starting handle (in America a crank, or crank-handle), which could get the car going if the battery was flat. Nobody has such tools now: Alan Wilkes, veteran motoring expert, says that "even if we had one today, it wouldn't work, because the car manufacturers, beginning with the American-owned European factories like Opel and Vauxhall, deleted the hole in the car's front and the attachment necessary for the handle, so as to save pennies per vehicle." So, goodbye to something else we could do for ourselves.
The history of the motor car is a story of romantic innovators like Louis Chevrolet (mad for cars, died in penury) and Charles Rolls (mad for speed, killed in an air accident, leaving FH Royce to bring the Silver Ghost to fruition); and the formidable Mrs Bertha Benz, who pioneered the first long-distance road trip in 1885 and fixed all minor breakdown problems herself.
Human ingenuity created some fabulously beautiful automobiles - the Daimler, the Bugatti, the Hispano-Suiza, the Jaguar, the stunning Citroen DS, the Chrysler, the Oldsmobile - but the human motorist is now to be superseded by the machine itself.
The rot set in when the Swedes invented an ignition key which turned itself off if the motorist didn't respond immediately, assuming the driver was dopey or drunk.
Boss, boss, boss - that's what awaits us with the car of the future.