Clarkson v The Computer: Is autonomous tech the end of the road for the traditional car reviewer?

The driving test could be headed for the scrapheap. That’s what is being predicted by many, including CAP HPI, which has carried out research that reckons we won’t need a driving exam like the one we have today because autonomous cars will make it redundant.

Jeremy Clarkson Top Gear Live

Autonomy is being touted as the big thing for the future that will free us all up from the drudgery of piloting our cars, as well as many other menial chores. It’s also thought robots and other forms of autonomous machine will put many of us out of work. This could well include motoring journalists, which is how this writer has scratched a living for the past 25 years, so I have a vested interest in where this could all end up.

It’s certainly the case that motoring journalism has evolved and changed a great deal in the past quarter of a century and more than it has in any period since the car chugged past the horse to become our favoured mode of transport. Much of this evolution cum revolution is due to the advent of the internet, without which you wouldn’t be reading this column.

The internet has been a positive for the world, by and large, though it has made life for journalists much tougher. Now, before you reach for the tissues to dry your eyes, don’t feel too sorry for us hacks as most of our trade still earn a reasonable crust. We also work hard to uphold standards of professionalism in writing, grammar and reporting honestly. Those are the foundations of all good journalism.

AutoExpress magazines

We could go off at a tangent here about fake news and how the internet has spawned many thousands of would-be Jeremy Clarksons as it has allowed anyone with a computer the ability to publish their own content. However, let’s credit ourselves with enough intelligence to say that most of us are sufficiently savvy to tell a credible online outlet from someone who howls at the moon.

This still leaves us with plenty of reliable, trustworthy outlets. Which ones you prefer comes down to personal taste. It also depends on what your interests are. If they are motoring related, the chances are you’ll be familiar with the titles in whichever branch of the car world presses your starter button.

All of the many and varied online, print and broadcast titles offer advice, entertainment and information to varying degrees. This is because there’s a market for this as consumers generally want expert opinion to help make a decision when choosing their next car. It’s why we run vehicle reviews.

Aston Martin DBS road test

Why should you trust these reviews and the opinion of the writer? Well, many motoring journalists have been working for years, driven almost every make and model of car and built up a considerable knowledge as a result. This experience puts them at an advantage in a similar way to why we listen to pundits about football, tennis, motor racing, food, fashion, politics and just about every subject under the sun.

Driving is becoming secondary to the technology in cars.

There can be differences of opinion between motoring journalists but, broadly speaking, they tend to home in on the same plusses and minuses of a new car. Yet, here is where the landscape is changing at its quickest: the driving bit is become secondary to the technology in cars.

Autonomy and infotainment are often the topics most people want to know about when reading a car review. A decade ago, these subjects didn’t even warrant a single line, but now they are essential components of any valid review. This means the journalist writing the piece has had to adapt to accommodate this demand and understand ever more complex technologies in order to explain them to the reader.

As autonomous cars become more viable, will it kill off car journos?

However, if we go with the premise that all cars will be autonomous within 25 years, why do we need to know how they will drive? If we’re not piloting the vehicle, all of that interaction that makes up a car review today becomes redundant. All we need to know is how smooth is the ride and how good is the infotainment. Does it come with a bigger cinema screen than the one from a rival maker and is the fridge big enough to hold a two-litre tub of ice-cream?

Yup, these could well be the more important considerations in a world where usership has replaced driving. You’ll still need a lease deal, but that will give you access to autonomous driving pods, public transport and all manner of other zero emissions travel. That makes the job of motoring journalist just another one consigned to the history books.

Motoring journalism in days gone by is satirised perfectly by so-called Roy Lanchester

Motoring journalism in days gone by has been satirised by so-called Roy Lanchester

Or does it? After all, the decline in petrol and diesel sales will be a much longer, more protracted process than has been claimed by some. We’re also going to have hybrids to drive for a long time to come and there’s also the small matter of autonomous vehicles and insurance liability to be resolved before we see them become commonplace.

On top of that, there will be still be millions of cars on the road that rely on humans to make them work. Perhaps this might mark these poor saps out has trailing in the technology race, but I think not.

You see, there will also be a huge number of cars on the road that are either already regarded as classics or will have turned into a classic by the time autonomy is truly ready to be switched on across whole countries. This means there will still be many out there who want to read about the differences between various cars written by someone with an expert opinion.

Phil Huff road test

There is also the simple human element that often gets flattened by autonomy’s greatest fans. There’s a pleasure in driving, a skill that offers interest and involvement with the machine and environment around us. You don’t get that sitting in an aeroplane where you’ve abdicated all responsibility to the pilot, so why should it be any different in an autonomous car?

So motoring writers are changing just as every other form of journalism has to adapt to the world around it. This has been the case ever since the first newspapers began to appear in 17th Century Germany.

Oh, and incidentally, I don’t think the driving test will be scrapped within 25 years. But then, I’m a mere journalist, so what would I know…

Read Al’s other motoring journalism here.

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