Comment: autonomy may be clever but does it inspire?

Autonomous vehicles are hugely impressive, but they don’t fire the imagination like their manned equivalents writes our anonymous blogger

Roborace’s autonomous DevBot cars take to the track in Buenos Aries

A short while ago I read, in the ethereal pages of this august publication, about a test race between two autonomous cars. These new racers promise less risk of injury due to less crashes (having removed human error from the equation) and there being no one on board anyway even in the unlikely event of it all going pear shaped. Therefore much sniggering was to be had when it ended in a crash.

No matter, those behind this novelty took their setback in good grace and promised to “improve” things. Opposing these laudable aims, there are those who feel that an inherent risk of death adds to the gladiatorial element and therefore enjoyment of the racing. For me, this is all secondary to the skill involved. Admittedly crashes are exciting, in the truest meaning, but that is different to actively looking forward to one.

Is this brave new world, as a dyed in the wool enthusiast, what I want though; especially given my avowed interest in overtaking over mayhem? No – probably – I’ll undoubtedly watch one or two rounds to give it a chance but I am fairly confident about this prediction.

It’s all very clever from an engineering point of view but, even in motor racing where the reliance on technological superiority is more obvious than in other sports, it is not the complete story. A car held just on the verge of spinning, or in the middle of a breath-taking pass conducted with superlative human skill and flair is what really excites me. Young Max Verstappen has been the one to most recently reinforce this view.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., lunar Module pilot, is photographed during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity (EVA) on the lunar surface. In the right background is the Lunar Module "Eagle." On Aldrin's right is the Solar Wind Composition (SWC) experim
Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface – more inspiring than a robot?

Whatever the finer points of the argument may be, the point is that it is the human interaction that is key. Ask what was the first man made vehicle to land on the Moon and a few will know, but not many (Luna 2 in case you are wondering). By contrast virtually everyone reading this will know that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on our celestial partner. Sputnik 1, as the first manmade object hurled into space, is probably the exception but I’d still wager that – overall – manned achievements are better known than their unmanned equivalents.

I cannot help but feel that this is reinforced by another not totally unrelated story in the news, the sale of tickets for flights to orbit the Moon. Few have the chance to truly blaze a trail but as the novel and the inherently risky heads towards the normal and the generally safe, the opportunity for new, thrilling experiences are opened up to more and more.

Although it is only the rich and fortunate who can fly around the Moon at the moment, in 50 years it will be more common and in 150 years possibly commonplace. Of course by then there may be tickets on sale to follow in the footstep of the next trail-blazers to Mars and beyond?

It need not be the latest thing that appeals to this hardwired compulsion. There is still a thrill for many, but I concede not all, from the now broadly accessible activities of driving a quick car or taking to the air. We never tire of the vitality of such experiences.

Autonomy can be used to reduce risk, to remove the requirement for human pioneers. However this is to ignore that for some it is a need and a choice, it is something that is yearned for.

Look to the latest spate of freefalls from stratospheric balloons and the like to illustrate just how much some are willing to invest in pursuit of this thrill. Perhaps more importantly it is inspirational and although autonomous vehicles, whether racing or acting as pathfinders, are hugely impressive; it is a truth that they just don’t engage like their manned equivalent. Let us safeguard life as much as we can, but don’t let us forget the meaning of what it is to be alive in the process.