We took off near the Place de Bastille, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. It was a quiet Sunday night, and the sun had long gone down. Heading south-west towards the Seine, our headlights bounced over cobblestones, lighting the marble feet of a statue here and a couple embracing there. Hands gripping hard and heart beating fast, I slammed my right foot down at the lights near the Place Vendôme. I sped past a stunning red Ferrari F355 and cut across five empty lanes towards the glittering Eiffel Tower.
Powered by sheer adrenaline and joy, it was the first taste of freedom my friend and I had experienced since emerging from Europe’s strict lockdown. The scene felt every bit like a reimagining of ‘C’était un Rendez-Vous’, the 1976 short by Claude Lelouch, one of the greatest street racing films ever made. Except my friend and I never made it to Montmarte at sunrise. We failed to hit anywhere near the auteur’s claimed top speed of 200km/h, and we certainly didn’t have anything close to a Mercedes- Benz 450 SEL (or a Ferrari 275 GTB) at our disposal.
In fact, we were actually on rented electric bicycles, the kind you park in a dock on the side of the road, and the jaunt was only made possible by the city’s COVID-19 bike lane measures. I don’t cycle much, but it stirred a longing for liberty and control. And besides, you’ve got to get your kicks where .you can find them.
Normally Sydney-based, I’ve been in the UK since March. I spent most of the lockdown there without a car, forced to get my fix vicariously by wandering the surrounding village and peeping into neighbours’ garages to see what lay sleeping. The one vehicle I did have access to has been a manual Ford Transit, which made me squeal with joy through the English B-roads with the same energy as a hot hatch. A Transit and a share-vélo might not compare in thrills with the divine beasts of these pages. But being so deprived of the road, I desperately wanted to feel something. I’d yearned for the physicality and control of driving for so long, a flirtation with a six-wheeled office chair would have satisfied.
The silver lining of 2020 is it has led us all to rethink life and adapt to change. We’re doing micro-calculations of risk as we move around. We’re pivoting our careers and attitudes, speaking-up against injustices and drawing lines in the sand with what we will/won’t accept as “normal”. And most of all, society is reconsidering what it values most. Between lockdown, my Parisian thrill-ride and all the time I’ve had to reflect while on-foot, I can’t shake this thought: are we wandering blindly into a future from which we can’t return? Specifically, I’m talking about the autonomous personal vehicle. I realise I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but have we really, truly thought about the hyper-personal impact handing control over to the computers might have?
Under the shadow of recent global events, investing in autonomous vehicle technology might seem smart. After all, Silicon Valley tells us it will be safe, convenient and environmentally beneficial. I don’t believe that’s the case. Put aside these alleged benefits, and what we’ll likely be left with is a technology that removes all agency and offers total detachment, leaving passengers to be sitting ducks, ready to be force-fed content – just like we experienced in confinement. It’s not science fiction, that part is here now.
Some manufacturers already have video games and content streams available in passenger cars, as if the outside environment, company or the sensation of driving isn’t entertaining enough.
Of course, level 5 vehicle autonomy will only work if every car can be connected and, granted society is still a long way off from that. But, while trials continue, we should be asking if that’s genuinely what we want for future generations. Flotation tanks ferrying us around as we’re glued to yet another screen, feeding us ads? Yikes. Gone will be micro-connections we have with other humans on the road; those little moments of eye contact, understanding and recognition. Lest we forget the universal sensation of independence one feels while behind the wheel.
Chasing the dragon of sensation through a vehicle may not be for everyone, but should society be willing to make that compromise? We’d be giving up the one personal item that offers solitude, escape and social experience, with a safe, distant interaction with the outside world. And for what? The following question might be something each of us has thought of many times this year and the more you consider it, the murkier the answer gets. But is freedom the price we’re willing to pay for what we can only describe as an uncertain promise of safety?