Death by Playmobil

I passed my driving test 23 years ago. I started driving so long ago, Arsene Wenger was in charge of a Japanese team with a name like an Austrian mountain troll and Henri Paul was still alive. I miss Henri. We all do.

I’m neither good at driving nor bad at it; I’ve never won a race and I’ve never knocked two people off a tandem. Generally speaking I can sit behind the wheel of a car and know, with a reasonable degree of confidence, how to make it move forwards, backwards and side to side. But I do have one question.

What the fuck is the handbrake doing down there?

Apparently in the years since I realised that living near a tube station meant gifting money to an insurance company and thus flogged my car, things have become automatic. Not automatic in the sense of driving themselves – that’s ‘driverless’ and Google and the like have co-opted that for their fleet of murderous death carts with maximum AI and limited mercy. No, ‘automatic’ is here defined as ‘no more gears for you’. I knew this when I hired the bastard, automatics now being about a third of the price of old-man manual motors.

Imagine my confusion when I was instantly confronted by a gear stick, with so many letters up its side I’d be surprised if Susie Dent couldn’t make an 18-pointer out of it. I’m keen to investigate this mystifying alphabet, but first I have to start the engine. There’s a button that says start, I’ll press that. Nothing’s happening. There’s a screen where the speedometer’s meant to go and it says ‘Press brake’. To start? I press the brake and press the button and the engine starts. Not for the last time I imagine a committee coming up with this combination on a day off from flinging their shit round Chessington.

So to the letters. It’s on P now. There’s a D and an R, possibly an L, and an X that almost certainly involves an ejector seat. There’s no F for forward so I guess D is for drive. Cleverly, I also take my foot off the brake. I’m getting the hang of this.

Think again, Ayrton.

Where the handbrake would ordinarily go there’s a button saying things like ‘4×4’ and ‘auto’. I hired a medium-sized car because I’m about to drive on a winding road up the side of a mountain in a foreign country, and if someone’s plummeting to their doom it’s going to be some cheap bastard in a ‘compact’ motor, not me. This button suggests the car will move forward if I find the right combination of switches and levers but right now it’s coughing and twitching like a tramp on the Embankment, with a lot less forward momentum.

Peering about in mounting frustration I notice a pedal where there’d normally be a clutch. Until now I’d assumed it was a clutch but times have moved on and there’s sticks with letters to deal with all that now. So what’s that pedal for?

I refer my honourable audience to my question of seven paragraphs ago. It’s no longer a handbrake, it’s a footbrake. Right next to the pedal you press with your foot that causes the car to slow down. Christ alone knows what that’s called nowadays. As we’ve already established its principal function is now to start the bloody engine since keys became hated tools of the oppressors.

Incidentally, even though there’s no key you still have to carry about the device where the key might be expected to jangle. You can only start the car when its gigantic security fob is in the vicinity. How that makes a car more thief-proof than a key is knowledge for younger men with degrees in Automotive Electronics from places like Nottingham and Sheffield, not history with a small h from Hatfield Polytechnic.

Having finally released all the brakes, we’re actually off. Going forwards, picking up speed. Waiting for the gears to change automatically. I get up past 15 miles per hour and it sounds like a Sinclair C5. Surely everything is where it’s meant to be, but if I keep on like this I’m going to be that little old lady doing 25 in the middle lane, gesticulated at by incensed Audi drivers.

I have no choice. I have to consult the manual. I’m in an English-speaking country so naturally English is about the 34th out of 298 languages in these pages, after Mauritian Creole, C++ and Welsh. Eventually it transpires I have the gear stick in the correct letter, P, but in an extra, right-hand slot of P, which indicates I’ve chosen manual gear operation so in fact the engine’s whining is all my fault.

So I can drive it manually! But where are the gears?

On the steering wheel. Of course they are.

There’s no end to the exciting innovations the car industry have brought us since I drove vehicles named after cherished top-shelf publications. Cars are so huge now there’s not the faintest possibility of seeing anything out the back window if you’re reversing, so they’ve provided a helpful video screen so you can watch cats and children die in about 25 pixels. The information on the dashboard screen is now so bountiful we’re just short of getting Wikipedia on there. You have to start the engine to shut the windows. In common with every other electronic device on Earth in 2018, a car stereo now has Bluetooth connectivity that never, ever works.

Even filling the tank has been improved. It only takes four or five minutes of utter confusion, scratching and pleading at the side of the car, before you discover the petrol cap is released by a button on the steering column. And you can now pay at the pump, though only if you wave your card at the machine before you start pumping. If you don’t, you just take the card to the counter after. Another example of that extra layer of security we’ve all been begging for in the age of nonstop embezzlement.

Still, a few aspects of driving remain largely the same. People still tailgate so close you spend mile after mile fantasising about a feather touch on the middle pedal causing them to veer desperately into oncoming traffic. It’s still absolutely impossible to tell which side the petrol cap is on from the driver’s seat no matter what angle the mirrors are at. Women are still far less likely to pause for crossing pedestrians than men. Test that one out for yourself next time you’re on foot before you start calling me Louis CK.

I used to think driving was quite enjoyable in small doses. Not owning a car I like to think you can pick it back up in seconds, liking riding a bike or probably having sex. When you get behind the wheel it’s like you never handed the keys over at all.

Like hell. This is driving for the Snapchat generation; they need flashing lights and things to press. Even now there’s a panel of experts discussing ways to make driving more ‘fun’, as though these aren’t fearsome instruments of mayhem in the hands of anyone without at least a passing interest in the well-being of others. If anyone’s mown down while crossing the street, boredom will soon be a solid defence against charges of death by Playmobil.

I fear the next cutting edge tech might prove one flummox too far. For now driving is still, just about, a feasible way to get from one place to another without having to hear some dickhead’s tinny techno out of his Marley Chants. But if you don’t have the temperament of a toddler or the obtuse mind of an Only Connect contestant, I’d consider binning the Auto Express and buying a bicycle, because Noddy is about to take over.

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