James May

James May as Tron

The rise of the machines

I am always slightly surprised that my cat, Fusker, can’t speak. I spend many hours each week talking to him, but it’s always a totally one-sided conversation and the chances are that the only word he vaguely understands is ‘Fusker’. And he can’t even say that.

My other dependant, Woman, reckons Fusker can’t talk because he’s only a cat, and that the evolution of cat technology is such that he just isn’t capable of speech and for complex zoological reasons. But I’m not so sure.

In terms of the mechanics of speaking, the cat is as well equipped as I am. He has a voice box of sorts; a mouth, a tongue, teeth. These are what we use to form words. And yet still nothing of any consequence comes out of his witless furry face. Why?

Eventually, I have been forced to conclude that Fusker remains speechless not because he is incapable, but simply because he has nothing to say. He has nothing to say because he hasn’t done anything worth talking about. All he aspires to is another bowl of food or the chance to go outside and find a lady cat (being too thick to realise he has no nuts). He can communicate either of these desires with a simple bleat.

I suppose it’s possible that some ancestor of Fusker, while chomping away at his cat food, came up with the basic design for a separate-condenser steam engine long before James Watt did. However, he could do nothing about it, so it went unrecorded. He could do nothing about it, because he didn’t have opposed thumbs, the very attribute that allowed mankind to fashion a bit of flint into a tool and gradually shake off the shackle of being a mere hunter/gatherer. It was a relatively small step from there to variable valve timing.

Since we’re on the subject of tools I’d now like to talk about Mr Stanley and his famous knife. Any man who has owned a Stanley knife – and any man who hasn’t is unworthy of his sex – will, at some point during the trimming of some linoleum or the assembly of a 1/72nd-scale Messerschmitt 109, have stuck the eponymous craft instrument into his body somewhere. This week, I drove mine into the fleshy end of the thumb of my left hand. To all intents and purposes, I now have only one arm.

If you’d like to go and stick your own Stanley knife into your own thumb, you will quickly discover how difficult many straightforward life skills can become. Grating cheese, for example, or playing Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag on the piano. It’s these two opposable digits, then, that separate us from the beasts.

“Traction limits, ignition requirements… I couldn’t sort this out in an exam room with a calculator and my lucky pencil sharpener” 

Consider driving. I hadn’t realised, until it was clad in a Beano-style comedy bandage, just how crucial a role my left thumb plays in this everyday activity. Denied the use of this vital receptor, driving becomes notably more difficult. Even in my old Bentley, which, as a slovenly automatic, does more than pretty much any other car to relieve its owner of the tiresome duty of operating it, I find my finer points of car control slightly compromised.

All of which brings me, eventually, to modern car technology and driver aids, most of which have their basis in micro-electronics. They are amazing things. The injection system of a modern diesel engine can provide five separate squirts of fuel, each minutely timed and of minutely different volume, in the space of one ignition stroke – an event which, at 4,000rpm, occupies just under 0.004 seconds by my calculations. I couldn’t do that.

A drive-by-wire throttle, when you depress it in anger at the exit of a corner, will garner information from sensors monitoring, among other things, air density and temperature, limits of traction and perhaps even the steering angle. At the same time, a disposable plug-in module will be deciphering the ignition requirements in three dimensions. I couldn’t begin to sort this lot out even given three hours in a silent examination room with a calculator and my lucky pencil sharpener.

In fact, whatever computerised systems are responsible for these things are much, much better than me at punctuality, long division, data management and spatial logic. But I bet they couldn’t catch a tennis ball.

I can. I can also ride a bicycle, run, swim, shoot clay pigeons and pat my head while rubbing my stomach. Bosch Motronic can’t do any of these things. I could even, theoretically at least, compete in the triple jump or javelin.

So when people tell me that electronic controls are coming between the driver and the modern car, I say cobblers. Yes, the right-hand pedal in the new Golf GTI may seem a bit vicious at times, and perhaps the traction control in this or that supercar is too intrusive. I’ve no doubt that some electric power steering systems are placing a barrier between the steering wheel and what the wheels are ultimately doing, and brake assist sometimes seems to make a mockery of the relationship between what we do with the middle pedal and what actually happens to the car. But to suggest that these things are usurping the driver is nonsense.

Electronics are merely cussed and logical, as your desktop computer will ultimately prove to be. Meanwhile, the human computer is supreme, the most remarkable electro-mechanical device ever conceived, and one as yet barely understood. I now realise that when I drive my old 911 down a winding country road, pretty much every last bit of my body – save perhaps my hair – is toiling away, deciphering the mass of information coming at it and translating it through the brain into a multitude of decisions and inputs. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself without a thumb, a big toe, an eye or a buttock. The fact is we are no closer to finding a substitute for the driver than we are to finding an alternative to sperm in the reproductive process.

The greatest driving aid in the entire history of motoring was fitted to the Benz Motorwagen when it was rolled out of its shed for the very first time, and has been included in the design of every single car built since. It was you.

And it’s still you.


James May, Column

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