IS THE FUTURE OF AUTO JOURNALISM MADE OF STEAMY HOT MURDERSQUISHES?
Matthew Inman, who draws the Oatmeal and has made a stupendous success out of it, is my shazznoodle. His cartoons are the equivalent of the Paramount Marx Brothers – skewering stuffed shirts and creating a wonderful world of madness, absurdity, and searing, piercing, common-sense truth. Inman has millions of faithful followers, myself included.
While no one would say Inman is a “celebrity,” which to me means someone whose photo coming out of a restaurant can be sold to a magazine for $1500, his notoriety invites his public to accept and follow his opinions on other important matters.
That can be a trap. If a famous actor or musician is also a butterfly expert, fine, I’ll read what they say about butterflies. Other celebs make jackasses out of themselves when they open their mouths about important matters. Tony Robbins, for example, is a brilliant motivational speaker who has also made idiotic off-the-top-of-his-head remarks about other subjects here and there. President Barack Obama can talk to me about health care, but not about the truss rod on my guitar, man.
Inman has just published an article on his website titled “6 things I learned from riding in a Google driverless car.” As an auto journalist soaked in gears, oil, A-pillars, camshafts, glass, variable valve trannies and the rest, my first reaction was “Grrr, please leave this to those who do this sort of thing.”
I was willing to come along with Inman, though, because of my respect for his wit, craft and seriousness about the subject. He described the vehicle perfectly from a common-sense standpoint, and his illustrations were the usual sharp, funny, to-the-point Oatmeal.
I take issue with one point he made, though. I quote: “Human beings are terrible drivers. We drink. We doze. We text. In the US, 30,000 people die from automobile accidents every year.(Source) Traffic crashes are the primary cause of death worldwide for people aged 15-24, (Source) and during a crash, 40% of drivers never even hit the brakes. (Source)We’re flawed organisms, barreling around at high speeds in vessels covered in glass, metal, distraction, and death. This is one of Google’s “moonshots” — to remove human error from a job which, for the past hundred years, has been entirely human.”
Inman is right but he is also wrong. Not everyone is a terrible driver the same as not every Irish person is a drunk, not every Jew is a money-grubber and not every large person stuffs themselves with junk food.
He also doesn’t see what I see, and that’s this – if we’re terrible drivers, it’s for the same reason the population in general are terrible brain surgeons, pilots, and crocodile wrestlers. We are not trained to drive. We are given a written test, an eye test, and a road test involving signaling correctly, executing a K-turn, parallel parking and a few other ridiculously simple road tasks.
We are not required to throw our vehicle into a skid and steer out of it without hitting the brakes, or hitting a tree. Our road tests do not occur during hurricanes, vicious rainstorms, or when it’s pitch black out. If we took training our drivers seriously, we would pack the back seat with screaming children. We would put a mother-in-law in the passenger seat. We would be required to drive when we were exhausted, when we’ve just had an argument with our wife, when we’ve just been fired, or when a girlfriend had her tongue in our ear and was unbuckling our belt and we wanted to push her away but it was just so damn fun to have someone do that to us.
We don’t do any of that, though. Our entire approach to driving is reactive, not proactive. Manufacturers pack as much safety features into new cars as they possibly can to compensate for the fact that we don’t really teach people to drive. We teach them to get by. We do the bare minimum.
That Inman got to test a prototype of a driverless car and published an article so positive about the unit is a huge coupe for Google, too. Auto journalism, whether the public knows it or not, is fast becoming advertorial – the public reads “reviews” that are lists of what the vehicle does, but not where it really sucks. The public needs a grouchy, cynical, seen-it-all, nothing-impresses-me gearhead to really tell it like it is.