There was a time not so very long ago when you got into your car and were able to drive away without it telling you what to do. By and large, it submitted itself to your will.
Of course, a driver couldn’t make a car go faster than it was capable of, and from time to time — particularly if it was British — it would let you down and conk out on a B-road in the middle of nowhere on a rainy night.
All the same, one generally felt one was in charge.
Then engineers began to introduce warning devices. My car, which is German and therefore briskly efficient to the point of being bossy, bleeps to inform me that I am not wearing a seat belt, am running out of petrol, am about to reverse into the car behind, or even if it is unduly cold outside.
Simpler times: It was not so very long ago when you got into your car and were able to drive away without it telling you what to do (file image)
Sometimes, when it emits three or four insistent beeps at the same time, I shout at it and make aspersions about its Teutonic origins that very possibly constitute a hate crime.
Still, I suspect most drivers are grateful for these interruptions. They are meant well. A friend even has an apparatus which notes if he is straying from lane to lane, and suggests in a fairly kindly way that if he is feeling tired he might like to take a rest.
But there is all the difference in the world between advice and compulsion. As a result of plans drawn up by the European Commission, from 2022 all new cars will be fitted with devices that make sure they automatically keep to a speed limit.
Perhaps, like me, you had assumed that if we ever left the European Union we would be free to ignore busybody diktats from Brussels. Silly us! The Government has said that, after Brexit, vehicle standards will be aligned with those in the EU.
So this country will adopt what is called ‘intelligent speed assistance’. Not only will your speed be regulated from above, but if you drift out of your lane, in place of a warning bleep, your car will be arbitrarily plonked back to where a higher authority deems it should be.
As a result of plans drawn up by the European Commission, from 2022 all new cars will be fitted with Intelligent Speed Assistance technology that make sure they automatically keep to a speed limit
Now I realise many reasonable people will welcome these measures because they are designed to enhance road safety and save lives. A voice in the back of my mind is telling me to roll with the punches and not to make a fuss.
Indeed, it is hard to find much wrong with a proposal that goes by the title of ‘alcohol interlock installation facilitation’. This is an in-car breathalyser that prevents motorists starting the ignition if over the drink-drive limit.
It’s rather like having an extra spouse. ‘You mustn’t drive, darling. You’ve drunk too much.’
Yet I can’t help being made queasy at the prospect of Big Brother controlling one’s car. He will no longer be a sometimes irritating back-seat driver who can mostly be ignored. He’ll be in charge.
My main objection is that, while I don’t mind getting advice from a robot, I certainly don’t want to be ruled by one. We are moral beings and should decide for ourselves how we obey the law.
In some cases, it is possible that the robot’s rigid conception of what is lawful — scary thought, implanted in its hard drive by someone such as Jean-Claude Juncker or Donald Tusk — may be at variance with our own practical requirements.
For example, Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, describes how a ‘speed limiter’ on a car he was driving kicked in at just 30mph when he was in the outside lane trying to join a motorway. He felt ‘very vulnerable and scared’.
One can imagine a husband rushing his pregnant wife to hospital, or any of us on an urgent mission, suddenly finding our progress restricted by a machine that doesn’t know about emergencies and can’t make exceptions.
In theory, a driver should be able to override the system — say, if he or she is overtaking — by pressing harder on the accelerator. Whoosh! The car suddenly shoots off like a rocket. Whose fault is it if there’s an accident? I can’t see the robot owning up.
I don’t know about you, but if I am in the driving seat, I prefer to be master of my own ship and responsible for my actions, rather than engage in an unedifying tussle with a conscience-less robot used to getting its own way.
Why do we need intelligent speed assistance? The European Commission says it will make our roads safer. Well, yes. That must be part of it. But isn’t this another case of the intrusive nanny state (in this instance, superstate) using dubious arguments to extend its reach into our lives?
For the truth is that in the UK, and some other European countries, accident and fatality rates have fallen dramatically in recent years as cars have become safer and drivers more conscientious and aware of potential dangers.
Between 2000 and 2017, the number of annual road deaths in this country almost halved from 3,409 to 1,793. This is attributable to factors including the increasing prevalence of airbags, better-built cars and a reduction in drink-driving.
Going back much further, there were 8,609 motor fatalities in 1940, when there were about two million vehicles on the roads, compared with 32 million today. The chance of dying in a motor accident is a tiny fraction of what it was 80 years ago.
This has been achieved as a result of safety measures introduced by car manufacturers, through public education, and by legislation outlawing drink-driving and making the wearing of seat belts compulsory. There hasn’t been a robot in sight.
And, interestingly, road safety is one area in which this country has excelled in comparison with its EU counterparts. The rate of traffic accident fatalities is about twice as high in France and Italy, and roughly four times as high in Bulgaria and Romania.
This is no cause for smugness and no doubt further improvements can be made. But why must this be done by taking responsibility away from human drivers and putting it in the hands of robots?
Brussels is not famous for upholding individual freedom. If it wants to tackle significantly worse traffic fatalities throughout most of the EU by giving power to Big Brother, there is absolutely nothing any of us can do about it.
But I find it pretty depressing that our Government should simply roll over and go along with these coercive measures in a post-Brexit world, presuming we ever inhabit one.
I can see no advantage in such an approach, except perhaps that the Government could no longer rely on ubiquitous speed cameras for tens of millions of pounds of income. You can’t easily fine a robot-controlled car for crawling along below the speed limit.
In every other way, the EU proposals are meddling and presumptuous. Leave people in the driving seat. Let men and women be responsible for their actions. And keep robots, German or otherwise, in a strictly advisory capacity.