Wednesday 14 October 2015 11:06 pm

The war on the driver is a war on freedom – and autonomous cars are part of the problem

Freedom-hating municipal politicians have it in for the motorist: London has its congestion charge, Dublin is closing off ever more of its urban core, and Paris is now experimenting with sporadically banning all private transport.
Young people, faced with turbo-charged costs, onerous restrictions and absurd taxation – not to mention rising housing costs – are buying fewer cars. Many don’t even learn to drive until their 30s.
Futurists, meanwhile, are busy foisting immature technology on us, from Elon Musk’s Tesla electric cars to Google’s self-driving autonomous vehicles.
This despite the technology not being sufficiently advanced to deliver a reliable range – and, as always with “green” tech, handouts aplenty, paid for by the rest of us. Musk, the self-styled libertarian, sells cars only made economically viable by government fiat.
Yet even the worst car has its virtues – and that’s what makes the war on the motorist so depressing for those who love the freedom the car represents and facilitates.
Take the humble Lada, or VAZ 2101 as it was called at home. Based on the Fiat 124, a simple saloon car that had already made millions of Italian families mobile, the Russians licensed the then chic design, hoping to add a dab of the dolce vita to the stodgy Soviet diet of borscht and Brezhnev.
The Lada’s reputation in the West was unenviable. It cheapness and its Soviet manufacture made it, like its Eastern-bloc comrades the Yugo, the FSO, the Wartburg and the Skoda, undesirable to Westerners. Owning one was not so much a sign of thrift as of indigence or sheer miserliness.
The real problems were that the extra weight added as weatherproofing resulted in poor responsiveness, and cost-saving measures, such as using drum brakes, not to mention lack of development, meant it was fundamentally compromised in comparison to Western cars of the era.
But the Lada is the second oldest story in motoring – a car for the masses – and it, like India’s Tata Nano, deserves a place in history alongside the Model T Ford, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Morris Minor, the Fiat 500, the Mini, and its own antecedent in the Fiat 124: it got people motoring.
Over 14m were made. That’s 14m Europeans and Central Asians and their families who enjoyed a taste of freedom of movement. Some Ladaniks were freer than others, admittedly.
A proud Lada owner in Munich could go anywhere in Europe, so long as he or she could pay for the petrol. An equally proud VAZ 2101 owner in Moscow needed documents simply to travel within Russia.
It wasn’t a good car, but it represented something. Cars can be all manner of things including, at their best, a total aesthetic experience of superlative beauty and sublime speed; to dismiss them, as is common, as a mere “box on wheels” is to almost, but not quite, get the point.
Ask anyone: the first day you legally drive a car your world shatters, geography shifts around you and things will never be quite the same again.
If Musk, the artless Google, tech trinket designer Apple, or anyone else ever get the autonomous car right, insurance companies will surely price the majority of us off the roads. It’s not just aesthetes or petrolheads who will lose out if we fall for the rise of the robots, it’s all of us. You want a driverless car? Get a taxi.
Put simply, the car is freedom. With it comes responsibility – paperwork, hassle and cost – but such is the nature of becoming an adult. Neither the car, nor what it represents, is worth sacrificing.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.