It was the end of the 1800s, and James Darling was one of Queen Victoria’s coach drivers. By convention, she should have addressed him by his surname, but to avoid embarrassment, she used his first name. This gave rise to the expression:
“Home, James, and don’t spare the horses!” The phrase subsequently became popularised in song, film and cliché.
Here we are, around 125 years later, and we might soon find ourselves being driven about – not by a coachman, but by our own car.
We’re already becoming used to cars that have autonomous functions such as cruise control, lane assist and advanced braking. But are we ready for a fully automated vehicle?
It’s not science fiction. It’s almost science fact.
There is a £6 million government-funded project to launch 100 driverless ‘pods’ in Milton Keynes by 2017. Testing is also underway elsewhere in the UK, as well as at the University of Michigan and a Volkswagen site in Germany.
It’s known that Google has been working on self-driving cars since the year 2000, and in July last year they appointed ex-Ford executive Alan Mulally to the Board. They plan to launch low-speed self-driving vehicles in 2020 that will no doubt integrate neatly with their Google Maps service.
IHS Automotive predicts low-speed autonomous vehicles will be common by 2025, with any speed by 2030, nearly 12 million worldwide by 2035, and the majority of cars and commercial vehicles being autonomous by 2050.
I asked my friends how they would feel about having a self-driving car.
Although not a statistically robust sample, I found an almost 50:50 split between those who leaned back with a satisfied sigh saying: “Ooh yes, I would love that” and those who replied: “Ooh no, I would hate it!”
Here are some of their answers:
• “I'd only want one if I didn't have to actually be in it;
• “Would I want one? Maybe. Would I want one behind me on the bike? Not convinced;
• “I have the BMW i3. It is the latest on the market (technology wise) and it is awesome. This for sure is the future. It is wonderful in the traffic;
• "I'd love one! But it would be better if I had the choice whether to drive myself or be driven. It would be great for long journeys or times when I am too tired / busy / distracted to drive;
• “Yes, but only when every other road vehicle is also self-driving;
• “Yes. To get back from the pub.”
Most of the people who responded positively were the ones who are currently nervous on the road. They only drive on short local journeys, avoid motorways, and don’t find parking easy.
The ones who didn’t fancy the idea were those who – like me – love the freedom of the open road, drive anywhere and everywhere independently, and don’t feel intimidated by traffic or parking challenges.
OK, so a self-driving car should help you:
• reverse into a parking space;
• ease forward in a traffic jam;
• park in a multi-storey car park;
• avoid collisions; and
• eliminate human error;
But there are urgent questions too.
One friend asked: “If you're over the drink-drive limit, would you be breaking the law being driven round by a self-drive car?” I don’t know the answer, but can tell it will cause all sorts of legislative nightmares.
What will you do while on the road if you’re not driving? Play with your iPad? Read a book? I don’t know about you, but I get travel-sick when I read in a car. I guess I’ll just have to look out of the window like any other passenger.
What happens if you have an accident in a self-driving vehicle? Will the motor manufacturer be to blame? Your car may be able to ‘talk to’ and avoid other cars, but what about the cyclist who swerves round a pothole, the sheep that strays onto the road, or the child that dashes out after a football?
Of course, your car won’t just drive you about. It will share location and speed data with other vehicles on the road. It will connect to satellites to monitor traffic conditions. It will no doubt make phone calls and play music and podcasts too.
And what happens to all that data? Will it be safe?
I know I can already be located via my mobile phone, and can be seen on CCTV every time I walk down the High Street. But I feel uncomfortable about my supermarket knowing whether I like brands or eco-products, and whether I have cats or kids. I’m nervous that my bank knows where I am wherever I use my debit card.
Admittedly, companies have had access to vehicle tracking technology for ages, to monitor their fleet. But I’m not sure I want my car company knowing where I am at all times. It’s yet another intrusion into individual privacy that makes me slightly twitchy.
Call me a control freak, but I think some of us just like driving ourselves about, and always will.
However, if I ever do get a self-driving car, I’m going to call it James, and you can call me ‘Your Majesty’.
For the latest on autonomous cars, be sure to attend the third International Auto Finance Network conference on 13 May.
Jackie Barrie is a ‘writing without waffle’ copywriter, trainer, speaker and author based in the UK with clients all over the world.
She can be found at jackiebarrie.com or follow her on Twitter @jackiebarrie