Autonomous vehicle claims are just a load of hot air… and here's why

Allow me to show my moon to the balloon

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Up, up and away-a-ay in my beautiful, my beautiful balloooooon…

Bye, then. I'm staying here. Nothing would persuade me to get into one of those hot-air death traps. Off you go, floating among the stars, singing your song while sailing along a silver sky or whatever. I've got work to do.

OK, OK, I admit I'm scared of the wobbly-sacked, flimsy-basketed bastards. Some people get the frights when they see a clown. Me, I scream like a girl if I even so much as glimpse a CorelDraw logo.

There have been many occasions on which I have been invited to board a hot air balloon as part of a leisure package, holiday perk or even press relations trip. Everyone else jumps (heh) at the chance. Me, I immediately conjure visions of the front pages in tomorrow's morning papers: COMPUTER JOURNALIST AMONG DEAD IN HORRIFIC BALLOON DISASTER, they'll scream, or perhaps GLOOM LOOMS IN ROOM AFTER BALLOON KABOOM DOOM, or maybe SOMETHING WICKER THIS WAY COMES, or even SELF-OBSESSED REG HACK INSISTS ON ACTIVE VERB HEADLINES AND THEN THIS HAPPENED…

The only thing going for the hot air balloon is that it is, in a very practical sense, the only full autonomous vehicle in actual use around the world.

This is in sharp contrast to the fantasy world the motor industry wants us to believe exists, one in which autonomous vehicles are constantly whizzing up and down the street in a well-ordered, tidy, clean and in no way dystopian future-present (dative-perfect).

Yet another heap of well-meaning nonsense has been slid off a shovel onto my shoes this week, as if to remind me that self-driving cars are a real thing even though they are quite obviously not. It was funny at first but the pretence has now accelerated from fantasy to insanity, on its way overtaking even the most hopelessly idiotic claims that have been trundling along the tech vapourware fast lanes in sixth gear for decades already, such as the 'paperless office', 'intuitive scripting language' and 'self-serve checkout' – you know, the ones that require a frantic member of staff, sometimes two, running from machine to machine to help you persuade the fuckers to work.

Take your self-driving nonsense and stick it up, up and away. You must think I'm living in some kind Fifth Dimension.

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Another tall tale doing the rounds again is the old gender-neutral-partner's tale about hydrogen-powered vehicles producing "clean" exhaust fumes, i.e. water vapour. Just last month someone inflicted upon me the claim that "commuters could soon be taken to work in a driverless car which is so clean they could relax on the journey with a cup of tea – brewed using water from the tailpipe."

For SEO purposes, allow me to add that the driverless car in question is the Hyundai Nexo, quite possibly the most expensive kettle ever to roll off a production line.

My immediate conclusion is that Koreans are as bad as the French at making tea.

As anyone in the civilised world knows, tea must be prepared using boiling water. You can tell when water is boiling because it has a tendency to bubble and boil and make a noise that can only be described as "bubbling" or "boiling".

Outside the civilised world, such as France, tea is made with room-temperature water from the nearest hot water tap fed by a boiler that broke down yesterday. Even then, having poured the water into a receptacle, the French tea-maker will wait an additional minimum period of time – somewhere between 30 minutes and a fortnight – before adding any leaves or a tea bag.

Seriously, I have watched French café-owners pour the "hot" water into an empty cup and seen their confused faces as they begin to wonder whereabouts they might have stored the tea and wander off to the basement to see if they have any left from last year, returning to add a dusty Lipton Breakfast bag into the tepid cup several geologic periods later.

The other possibility is that the Nexo really does produce boiling water, in which case it probably doesn't run on hydrogen fuel cells at all but is a more of a steampunk contraption – in which case, I doff my piston-operated top hat to you, fine gentlemen!

Lord knows what motoring journalists make of it all but the ever-extending deadline of when it will all be happening "on our streets now" is beyond laughable already. Little has changed since ten years ago when our attention was being suckered into believing such attention-grabbing headlines as "General Motors says driverless cars could be on the road by 2018".

Where did you read such outrageous bollocks? That's right, it was WIRED.

Sure, they're "on the road": they have to be parked somewhere.

Despite being sold a then-future (now-present) of autonomous cars, what we got instead was idle, distracted Uber fatties running down pedestrians. As members of the public, we are all fair game to the experimental whims of tech billionaires. One by one, we will be beta-tested to death to make another disruptor incrementally richer.

No doubt autonomous vehicles will come about eventually. Just not yet. We're nowhere near, not even close, to getting it right. Everything you've heard, maybe even believed, to date is… well, let's be charitable and not call it "make-believe"… let's call it "wishful thinking".

I wish I was rich and famous. That doesn't make it so, does it?

That said, given the choice between a hot ride in a self-driving car and a hot air balloon, I reckon the former is the safer bet of the two. As the vehicle careers about running people over, my life expectancy would be longer inside the car than outside it.

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Alistair Sterling Moss Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He is not surprised that self-driving cars can't recognise pedestrians, given that self-service checkouts considers that a shopping bag placed in the bagging area is an "unexpected item". He believes that every time a tech company decides to run an on-road test for its autonomous vehicle, it should enforce a Board of Directors' Walk To Work Week.

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