James May

Futuristic transport

Future tense

Recently, a friend of mine has given me a vintage telephone as a gift. You know the sort of thing – one of those brightly coloured Seventies types, with a comedy receiver and a big dial with finger-holes in it, but fitted with modern innards so it can be plugged straight into a normal phone socket.

And, having used it, I now understand why the homes of some of my childhood friends were equipped with telephone tables. Remember these? They had a sort of pouffe arrangement to sit on, a flat surface for the instrument itself, and a drawer for the Yellow Pages.

I thought these people were dead posh. They must have been, if every other requirement of their lives was already so well furnished that they could afford a dedicated piece just for telephoning. But now I realise that the telephone table evolved simply because dialling was so bloody tiring.

Come around and try it if you don’t believe me. You have to insert your finger in the hole corresponding to each individual number, haul it around to the little stop, and then wait for it to return to the start, ready for the next one. It takes ages. In its favour, the size of your phone bill is automatically limited by the amount of damage your index finger can sustain.

And it’s got worse. In 1976 my parents’ phone number featured eight digits. Now it has 11. Doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but two of the new ones are noughts, and the nought is right at the beginning of the dial. In the time it takes to whirr its way back to first position, I can sense my beard growing. It only takes a few seconds longer to dial with the old phone than it does with the new push-button type, but in this day and age, it feels like a month.

Dialling is not the only thing that has speeded up in my lifetime. Data retrieval is another. If, when I was a student, I needed to look up some facts or figures, I had to get up, have a shower, get dressed, put some shoes on, walk to the library, sign in, look up the book I needed in a card index, find it, find the information I wanted, write it down on a piece of paper, walk all the way back to my house and fall into a coma of exhaustion.

Now I can just look up whatever I need on the internet, of course. And yet, I become incandescent with impatience if the time taken for the page to render on the screen is much more than the twinkling of an eye.

“The trip to Devon will then take just a few minutes, leaving plenty of time for piano practice” 

When I mentally tot up all the time saved in a typical life through the good offices of things that are now much quicker – phones, computers, microwaves, dishwashers, cash machines, drive-through restaurants and so on – I end up wondering why we haven’t all become concert pianists in the eternity of time we must have. But we haven’t, because we’ve filled it with other things, and all of them are still, in truth, too slow.

Here we arrive at the real problem of the car. It’s not pollution or congestion, or even the cost of the thing. The problem is that cars are creakingly pedestrian by the standards of everything else we do. They’re barely faster now than they were when I was a child. Meanwhile, even tin openers are geared for higher speeds today than they were in the Seventies. And that’s still not fast enough.

Last weekend, for example, I drove to see an old mate who lives in Devon. The journey took three hours. Three hours! Three hours looking out of a window at the arse-ends of diesel Vectras and the like. There is no other activity in my life on which I spend such lengthy and uninterrupted stretches of my time.

This is why the car will not be the ruin of the world, as some are claiming. Soon, most people will be sick of it entirely, and all because it’s too slow to be of any use. Concorde was retired not because it was too noisy, too wasteful of resources or too expensive; it was because it wasn’t fast enough. A journey that took only half as long as it did on a 747 was still a lifetime in an age when you can download a whole album in a minute without even having to put your trousers on. The car will be a victim of its own sloth, just as the horse was.

I believe, in fact, that it will be usurped by something that moves through the largely unexploited medium of the air above our heads, and at truly huge speeds. The trip to Devon will then take just a few minutes, leaving plenty of time for piano practice.

But the car will not disappear entirely, and to understand why not, you only have to look at Britain’s canals. I doubt that any coal or jute is being moved on them nowadays, because canals, too, eventually became too slow. But canals are being reopened all the time, and they are all full of gaily painted narrowboats crewed by enthusiasts of rustic musical instruments. These people are simply enjoying boating as a hobby.

I’m sure cars will turn into a hobby as well. At the moment, it is immoral to price people off the road because they have no choice in the matter. Most of them would rather not be there anyway. But when the roads are reserved for those who are simply having a laugh, road tax can be raised to £2,000 a year to pay for the upkeep. Why not? No one will be forced to drive – they’ll be crossing the country at 1,000mph in antimatter-powered levitating balls, and then settling down to a few hours of Chopin. In any case, plenty of people spend more than £2,000 on golf club membership or skiing equipment. We can have road pricing, too. When driving is just a game, road pricing will seem no more unreasonable than having to pay to use the pool table in the pub.

Which sort of brings me to the new Porsche 911 Turbo. As a means of getting anywhere quickly, it’s just as useless as my Fiat Panda. But imagine how much fun you’ll have in a car that powerful when you don’t need to be anywhere in particular.



James May, Column

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