People are always quick to declare the death of this or that. Zip around the Web and you will find that people think that soon we will have no more postmen, no more newspapers, no more books, no cheques, no fixed telephones, no televisions and no record companies. Some radical thinkers believe that before long there will be no possessions because everything will be virtual and stored in “clouds”, floating somewhere out there in the ionosphere. There are some who think that the automobile will disappear, and thus by implication that there will no longer be any motor racing.
If this is so, could someone please explain to me why it is that horse racing still exists, as we have not been using horses to get from A to B for about 100 years.
The numbers of global car production do not show any sign of turning downward. It is reckoned that in 2011 there were 60 million cars manufactured (not including light trucks, lorries and so on). This was significantly up from the 2009 figure of 48 million, which was a result of the recession. The trend beyond this one blip has been constantly upwards from 40 million in 1999, to 45 million in 2004 and 50 million in 2006.
Having said that, the idea that cars might be replaced by autonomous vehicles is worth considering, but there is no link in my mind between that and car racing. With so many things saving time and energy, people will still want to be entertained and while living life in a virtual environment may satisfy some, there will always be others who want the hear the noise, smell the smells and take part in real life. Fighting space wars and building imaginary cities is all well and good, but they are just toys and games and we humans get bored of them.
The question of self-determining machines is one that upsets the older generations, who see cars as being symbols of freedom and adulthood. Perhaps the younger generation of urbanite will not feel the same way, but that does not mean that automobiles will inevitably become self-guiding. Car companies have started to demonstrate their clever technologies with cars that use cameras, radar and laser sensors to monitor one another. Google has developed a fully-autonomous Toyota Prius, and its driverless cars have clocked up more than 250,000 miles of running on the streets of California, although all still have drivers aboard – just in case of emergency. The state of Nevada has passed a law regulating autonomous vehicles and issued the first red license plate (to Google), so that its experiments can continue on the public highways. This, the developers argue, will be good for road safety as the majority of accidents are caused by human error. The big question at the moment is not what is technically possible, but rather whether the public will go for the idea. People like to drive and autonomous vehicles take away the basic joys of such activity. A recent survey said that only around 20 percent of people would purchase a fully autonomous vehicle at current levels of pricing. That figure nearly doubled when price considerations were dropped.
That may change. People are sceptical about not being in control of their vehicles and would like to make sure that the technology is absolutely bullet-proof before going down that route. At the same time we fly these days in fully-automated jets and ride in computer-driven trains.
There is another serious question that must be addressed before automobile companies jump on to the bandwagon: there are legal issues that must be addressed, ranging from how policemen stop autonomous vehicles, to the question of liability in the case of an accident. A driver who is not driving cannot be blamed for an accident. It must therefore be the fault of the manufacturer and that is frightening for those who deal in the world of liability, particularly as it has already been proved that it is possible to take control of a vehicle away from GPS systems. And what would happen if a satellite blew up? That would have the potential to be an “unnatural disaster” of devastating proportions. Some believe that it is pointless to invest in the machinery until the legal questions can be sorted out – and that will take time (and money).
What I think we will see in the short- to middle-term is the continuing trend of racing moving closer to (or into) urban areas and relying much more on public transportation methods to move people in and out. It is interesting to see that both rallycross and off-road racing is now moving to more stadium events, so as to guarantee bigger audiences. Perhaps before long we will see a few modern versions of the Circus Maximus…