No longer in the driving seat

A recent journey with car-averse friends from Norwich to the wilds of Iona brought home the pros and cons of public transport.

  • Taxis are comfortable and convenient, but expensive. Buses are often not where you want them to be, and even when they are, the drivers may ignore you (note to Glasgow visitors – if you want a bus to stop, stick your arm out and make unquavering eye-contact with the driver).
  • Aircraft have the benefit of speed through the air, but airports are hell on earth for too many reasons to list.
  • Trains are good, except when they are late, or there is engineering work, or the train doesn’t appear at all (as in the 1411 from Oban to Glasgow which, it turned out, did not run on a Saturday).
  • Ferries are pretty reliable in good weather, but the waiting rooms sometimes remind you of airports, which is bad. And they do not always make the connections you expect them to (the 2pm from Oban mysteriously does not connect with a vital bus from Craigmure to Fiannphort on Mull).


It may be that I am simply unlucky. I did twist my ankle badly on the quay at Iona, which is normally a pretty benevolent place. And it may be that I don’t like to depend on the reliability of other people.

Or maybe I just like the comfort zone of a car, which is very forgiving, as long as you treat it properly and enjoy driving. And you can get lots of stuff in the boot.

Of course there are those who don’t enjoy driving, or who think there’s no skill involved. These are the people in favour of lower speeds, road humps and cameras. They may also be in favour of the latest little device from Google, which is the driverless car.

Apparently this will “effectively end the distinction between private and personal transport”. The first step will be to use these driverless cars (maximum speed 25mph) in towns and cities. According to the Scientific Alliance, “they would be guided by a combination of cameras, laser and radar sensors with routes determined using the company’s own map database. Essentially, this would be like letting your satnav take over driving, with the ability to avoid cars, pedestrians and other obstacles.”

It would be quite a leap from there to driverless cars all over our roads and motorways, but no doubt it will come. Things do.

One advantage (assuming everything works properly) will be safety. One disadvantage will be the loss of a skill which many people enjoy. I have always loved driving and regard it as a skill worth mastering: this requires giving it your full attention, which it is clear many people are not prepared to do – the real, unacknowledged cause of most collisions.

Lost driving skill? Too bad, you may argue. Progress is progress.

Indeed it is, though I have a sneaking regard for James Thurber’s view that “progress was all right. Only it went on too long.”

But the driverless car will surely come, if Near-Eastern extremists don’t blow us all up first. And the skill of driving will be forgotten. Which is sad.

Any lost skill is sad. When I started working in newspapers, as a sub-editor I had to work with the printers on the “stone”, whose skill was arranging the metal type and blocks in columns to form a page. This required careful “leading” and appreciation of balance and feel for something that could only be viewed upside down and back to front.

I once made a suggestion for a correction that was a short cut. “After all,” I said, “it’s not an art form.”

I was rounded on by the compositor working on the page – a heavily built, no
-nonsense, affable guy who liked his beer and who had once offered to fix me up with a young woman. “Yes it is,” he said. Or words to that effect.

And he was absolutely right. What he could do brilliantly was certainly an art form, even though the page he composed would probably be read once and then discarded. He and his colleagues had developed a skill that was real and brilliant.

And overnight it was lost. Hot metal typesetting disappeared, to be replaced with computer setting. The top old men of compositing were overtaken quickly by younger, more adaptable hands. It was a sad thing, but not unique. It happens in different forms throughout industry and elsewhere.

So it would be self-indulgent of me to bemoan the prospective loss of my driving skill. But it will be a sad day when there is no more use for it. Death is always a sad thing.

I read the other day that the skill of handwriting is fading away, because children now use keyboards for everything. That’s sad too.

But the way they use keyboards is brilliant. Maybe the way we use driverless cars will be brilliant. Let’s hope so.