Why driving matters
Every time I switched off the engine of my old MG Midget after a spirited drive in the countryside it was impossible not to feel the euphoria and relief of another journey successfully completed. A proper sports car from different era that stirred the senses, it never failed to deliver a feeling of satisfaction from the involving drive.
Much has already been written, by infinitely more talented wordsmiths than myself, about how old cars are more involving. Or describing the thrill of far more exotic sports cars than an MG Midget. But driving any vehicle (or riding in the case of motorcycles) is a much broader topic and a fundamental shared experience that is also deserving of elaboration.
One of the reasons for my continued writing here has been the lofty ambition to fulfil the namesake of this publication and explain - why do people like driving?
As a society, we are moving towards the goal of less driving. A near future of less human operated private transport is inevitable: Be it through autonomous vehicles or by reducing unnecessary journeys and increasing use of public transport. We can argue about how long and damaging the road to get there will be. It certainly could be a slow and painful process, but the goal is broadly and factually a good thing. Effective transition away from driving will: reduce accidents, give us back valuable time and is a part of necessary carbon emission reduction. But it is unlikely to provide a direct replacement for the total freedom and experiences offered by driving a car or riding a motorcycle.
We developed motorised private transport to enable people to travel long distances by road. A valuable side effect of it is spontaneous travel and the unencumbered serendipity of a journey in which the motorist is in total control. Not only does it cast a wider net within which we can obtain things, carry out tasks and see people that we specifically intended to - we discover and explore more at the same time. This is a simple extension of the kind of experience we have when walking (or cycling) through a town or out in the countryside: we see things and people, and we interact with them for no better reason other than they are there and we can access them.
You can argue much of this can be recreated through other forms of transport, but there are undeniably elements that are unique to being a motorist.
Despite increasing enforcement, taxation and attrition, it is unlikely people will end up 'giving up' on private motorised transport entirely. It will simply become a less widely used option. But whether it will become less valued is more in question.
I think most people will continue to see the benefit of stepping outside, entering a space that is 'their own' and taking themselves, and whoever else wants to come for the ride, off somewhere. There is no alternative available to the masses that will offer the chance to follow as specific or vague a route as desired to such a broad range of possible locations than the motorist in complete control of their vehicle.
Will we actually own the vehicle that gets us there? Will it provide the same thrill of a classic sports car? Will it cost a lot more in future? There are lots of questions that it's impossible to know the answer to. But I'm willing to bet driving will still be a thing for many people for many years to come.
Driving can be likened to an analogue form of transport, where autonomous and public transport is digital. The resolution of the digital stuff may eventually increase so much it is functionally indistinguishable from analogue. Even when this happens some people just love the ritual of putting that needle on the record. That's what it means to be an enthusiast of something, to be enthusiastic about these rituals.
For me what does it is getting back in the driving seat of a car that was old or getting on a bit when I was young. Is the engine cold? Pull out the choke. Key in ignition. Turn the key and the starter motor churns, noisily encouraging the engine to turn over. Is it getting enough fuel? Will it start? Yes, it's coming to life. Dab the throttle a bit. The engine revolves faster, the exhaust reverberates and the car settles to a high idle. You get a whiff of unburnt petrol. Choke in a bit. Slot the gear lever into first. Let out the clutch and ease onto the throttle. The engine spins up the driveshaft and the gearbox gives out a little whine as power starts to be transferred to the wheels. There's a parp from the exhaust as you move off and change up into second gear. The unassisted steering requires a hefty wrench of the steering wheel, but it gradually lightens as you accelerate off down the road, and the journey begins.
This is me putting the needle on the record. It's a ritual, and it signifies the start of something I'm enthusiastic about: driving. I have some great memories of driving places with people I love or driving to see them. And even just driving on my own with no particular purpose. Psychologically and physically it takes me places, and that's why it matters to me.
I hope to continue to be able to drive well into the future in less environmentally harmful vehicles but occasionally in old vehicles too, even if it's just on special occasions.
I know it's a privilege and I know it's not free from environmental impact or health and safety risk. When I think about future generations and the world they inherit I know things need to change. But I also know the future will be bleak if we don't find a balance between social harm and social freedom. A world without the opportunity to become a motorist is hard to imagine, because it's just one of those things that helps us live a little.