To all the cars I’ve loved before

THE first car you own is like your first love, isn’t it? You will always remember it with great fondness, unless as with most first loves, it had a crash ending.

Well, I have good memories of my first car. It was a first-generation Honda Civic. It even had a name, Baxter, which the first owner came up with after the letters on the licence plate, which were BAX.

The year was 1982. I had started work as a reporter with The Star and I needed my own transport. So when a relative decided to sell Baxter, Mum bought it for me and I repaid her in several instalments.

Even though it was second-hand, I loved my red 1.2-litre, three-door Baxter. It didn’t have air-conditioning which, like the automatic gearbox, was not a standard feature in cars 40 years ago.

Now why am I going on such a sentimental journey with this? Because the driving landscape as we know it is on the cusp of a paradigm shift with what has been touted as the “biggest development in transportation since the automobile” itself, which is autonomous vehicles (AVs).

I last wrote about this technological phenomenon on Jan 27, 2016, and I headlined that column, Say goodbye to the driving licence.

Even then, just about every major automaker was working on driverless technologies. The leader of the pack then and now is Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, whose Self-Driving Car Project started in 2009.

A massive amount of data has since been gathered from millions of test miles. While there have been delays, complications and setbacks, such as a fatal accident involving an Uber test car, autonomous driving technologies are developing by leaps and bounds.

That is especially so with China entering the race, determined to beat the US in AV technology.

For example, tech giant Baidu, according to the South China Morning Post, has invested heavily in autonomous driving and last year launched a service, powered by sensors and computer vision technology, to enable cars to interact with roads and traffic lights.

Not only that, SCMP reported that China has dedicated a mountainous stretch of highway in eastern Shandong province for testing connected, self-driving vehicles. It also plans to build a world-class testing, research and development centre and incubator for driverless vehicles by 2023.

Closer to home, Straits Times reported all of western Singapore would become a test bed for companies to run their AVs in neighbourhoods such as Bukit Timah, Clementi and Jurong, which covers more than 1,000km of public roads.

This is an expansion of on-road AV trials that started in 2015.

Singapore, you see, has serious plans to provide safe driverless inter-town services and longer-haul journeys by the early 2020s.

(Where does Malaysia figure in AV technology? I have no idea but we seem to be focusing on developing flying cars, so ...)

There is still a great deal of work to be done before full-blown Level 5 AVs – meaning there is no human driver at the wheel as a safety backup – become a reality, and that includes legal frameworks and public acceptance. Surveys in the US have shown that the vast majority of people do not believe AVs will be safer, even though all the evidence show most road accidents are caused by human error.

But the consensus is that AVs are the future, just as automobiles have displaced horse-drawn carriages.

And just like how horses have become an anomaly on city streets and highways, so too will human drivers. Driving could very well become a hobby or a theme park attraction confined to special driving circuits and tracks.

Perhaps this reality will happen in my lifetime and I will indeed say goodbye to my driving licence.

Even now, I can look back on my 40 years of driving and realise that every successive car I had got better and better.

My little Baxter was replaced by a new Toyota Corolla LE with air-conditioning. I had a great number plate for it too: BCC 68.

My next car was a sportier model, the Mazda 323 Astina with its cool pop-up headlights.

In the early 1990s, my family and I moved to Australia for a while, where I drove a second-hand Mitsubishi station wagon. It was the first time I drove a car with automatic transmission.

Upon our return to Malaysia, I wanted something big and safe for the growing family. That was how I ended up with a Toyota Land Cruiser, my first four-wheel drive with powered windows!

Then I got promoted and got my first company car. My choice was the seven-seater Mitsubishi Spacewagon that could accommodate four adults, three kids and a maid. It was a fully imported model from Japan with a master door-locking button, auto powered window for the driver’s side and of course auto transmission.

The Volvo S60 was my next company car. It was quite a game changer with its aerodynamic shape that was aimed to mainly compete with the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

From Volvo, I moved to the Mercedes C250. By then, more features like airbags, anti-lock braking, active cruise control, collision warning system, assisted parking and advanced emergency braking had become standard in higher-end models.When I was promoted in 2013, I was upgraded to Mercedes E250. And what a lovely car it was, with lots of electronic bells and whistles.

The handbrake had shrunk to a foot pedal, the gear box was a paddle on the side of the steering wheel.

And of course it had keyless ignition and locking and unlocking the doors was a just a touch on the handles.

This car was so smart. It had GPS, could Bluetooth my mobile phone and warn me when I was sleepy, that a brake light was out, or my tyres needed air and lots more.

My Volvo S60 was able to guide my rear parking with beeps. But the E250 had a monitor to show me how to rear park.

So many of these safety, guidance and convenience features that didn’t exist during Baxter’s time have become industry standards.

Without us realising it, for the last 130 years, especially the last 50, the automobile industry has been working towards this goal: removing the most dangerous part in a vehicle, the human at the wheel.

Despite all the safety features in today’s vehicles, according to the World Health Organisation’s 2018 Global Status Report on Road Safety, 1.35 million people died in traffic-related accidents in 2016.

Road accidents had moved from 9th to the 8th leading cause of death for people of all ages and is the leading global cause of deaths for children and young adults between five and 29 years old.

I can only look back with profound gratitude that I have never had a serious accident in 40 years.

These days I drive only if I have to. I much prefer being driven around. Which is just as well since the writing is clearly on the wall.

Artificial intelligence will drive our vehicles and we will be reduced to being passengers. If I live long enough, it should coincide with the time I surrender my licence. C’est la vie!

Aunty has come to a full cycle. She started with a red Honda and after retiring, she has given up her Merc and opted for a Honda HRV in gorgeous red!

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