JG Ballard on cars in Drive Magazine 1971

JGB at the controls of a 1904 Renault Park Phaeton in 1971.

“Even if we can barely tell the difference between a sparking plug and a dipstick, the car is probably the last machine whose basic technology and function we can all understand”

by J. G. Ballard, science fiction writer, who analyses the reality that the 75-year-old motoring dream has become and foresees a future when the right to turn a steering wheel may lie out of our hands...

Think of the 20th century -- what key image most sums it up in your mind? Neil Armstrong standing on the moon? Winston Churchill giving the v-sign? A housewife in a supermarket loading her trolley with brightly coloured food packs? A television commercial?

For me, none of these. If I were asked to condense the whole of the present century into onemental picture I would pick a familiar everyday sight: a man in a motor car, driving along a concrete highway to some unknown destination. Almost every aspect of modern life is there, both for good and for ill -- our sense of speed, drama and aggression, the worlds of advertising and consumer goods, engineering and mass-manufacture, and the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signalled landscape.

We spend a large part of our lives in the car, and the experience of driving involves many of the experiences of being a human being in the 1970s, a focal point for an immense range of social, economic and psychological pressures. I think that the 20th century reaches almost its purest expression on the highway. Here we see, all too clearly, the speed and violence of our age, its strange love affair with the machine and, conceivably, with its own death and destruction.

What is the real significance in our lives of this huge metallised dream? Is the car, in more senses than one, taking us for a ride? Increasingly, the landscape of the 20th century is being created by and for the car, a development which people all over the world are now beginning to rebel against. They look with horror at Los Angeles -- nicknamed Autopia, Smogville and Motopia -- a city ruthlessly ruled by the automobile, with its air clouded by exhaust gases and its man-made horizons formed by the raised embankments of gigantic freeway systems.

In Britain the first motorways are already reaching across our cities. Many of them are motion-sculptures of considerable grace and beauty, but they totally overpower the urban areas around and -- all too often -- below them. It may well be that these vast concrete intersections are the most important monuments of our urban civilisation, the 20th century's equivalent of the Pyramids, but do we want to be remembered in the same way as the slave-armies who constructed what, after all, were monuments to the dead?

Sadly, despite the enormous benefits which the car has created, a sense of leisure, possibility, freedom and initiative undreamt of by the ordinary man eighty-six years ago when Kart Benz built the world's first successful petrol-driven vehicle, the car has brought with it a train of hazards and disasters, from the congestion of city and countryside tothe serious injury and deaths of millions of people.

The car crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives apart from their own deaths, and for many the two will coincide. Are we merely victims in a meaningless tragedy, or do these appalling accidents take place with some kind of unconscious collaboration on our part? Most of us, when we drive our cars, willingly accept a degree of risk for ourselves, our wives and children which we would regard as criminally negligent in any other field -- the wiring of electrical appliances, say, or the design of a bridge or apartment block, the competence of a surgeon or midwife.

Yet the rough equivalent of speeding on unchecked tyres along a fast dual carriageway at the end of a tiring day at the office is lying in a hot bath with a blazing three-bar electric fire balanced on the edge below a half-open window rattling in a rising gale.

If we really feared the crash, most of us would be unable to look at a car, let alone drive one.

These questions about the car -- probably unanswerable for the next fifty years -- I was thinking over when DRIVE invited me to join a veteran car rally across Germany to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Mercedes Benz and the launching of a new model, the 350SL grand tourer. Some eighteen cars belonging to members of the British Veteran Car Club assembled at Harwich, sailed overnight to Bremerhaven in northern Germany, and travelled together on a seven-day return journey to Stuttgart, the home of Mercedes.

Glad of a chance to visit the industrial landscape which was the birthplace of the car, I willingly accepted, and was duly sworn in as a passenger on board the AA's own veteran car, a 1904 Renault.

This was my first veteran car run, and there was no doubt by the time I reached Stuttgart that however little I knew about the modern car I knew a great deal about the old, all of it learned the hard way.

Exhausting, often terrifying and always exciting, the rally to Stuttgart left me with a number of reflections on the past, present and future of the car. Whatever the appeal of veteran cars -- and clearly being at the centre of a great deal of public interest is a large part ofthat appeal for the drivers themselves -- it seems obvious to me that these antiquated and uncomfortable machines are admired chiefly because they are machines. Most of them are now just as efficient mechanically as they were when new, thanks to continuous rebuilding and (I would guess) the spending of considerable sums of money by their owners.

As machines whose basic technology is rooted in the 19th century -- a visible and easily grasped technology of pistons, flywheels and steaming valves -- these cars have the same appeal as railway locomotives and steamrollers, a far cry from the new technologies of the late 20th century -- a silent and mysterious realm of invisible circuitry, thermonuclear reactions and white-tiled control rooms. Even on the domestic level our everyday lives are now being invaded by machines whose workings we can barely guess at. How many of us could mend a faulty automatic washing machine or waste disposer, let alone a colour television set?

The modern car, like its veteran ancestor, still remains a machine whose identity we can grasp. Apart from its obvious role as a dandy means of transport, the car satisfies one basic human requirement -- our need to understand as much as possible of the world around us.

Even if we can barely tell the difference between a sparking plug and a dipstick, the car is probably the last machine whose basic technology and function we can all understand. Beyond it lie technologies which are either too complex for us, like that of the computer, or those in which we play a wholly passive part, such aviation.

At the same time, an enormous backlash of hostility now faces the automobile, part of a general anxiety about the abuses of modern science. Has the car, in the sense in which we know it, any future at all? Will legislation more and more take away the freedom that is inseparable from the private vehicle?

My guess is that the car will remain much in its present form for the next thirty years. Whatever else may happen during the closing decades of the 20th century, it is almost certain that working hours will decrease and leisure hours increase. Given more leisure, and rising incomes on which to spend it, people's recreations will diversify, and only the car can provide the link. No public transit system ever devised could satisfy the vast transport needs of London, Manchester or Birmingham during the course of an ordinary weekend, and the decline of the private car is no more likely than the decline of the private house. Apart from this, driving a car clearly satisfies certain basic physical and psychological impulses, and any legislator trying to ban or significantly reduce the number of automobiles would do well to consider the alternative channels into which these impulses might flow.

Nonetheless, it is obvious that ever more restrictive legislation will be enacted all over the world aimed at the control of the car, concerned not merely with factors such as safety and pollution but also with the overall social influences. Like most legislation, it will tend to be aimed at the mass rather than at the individual car. To a large extent, the future of the car will be the future of traffic.

Within the next thirty years I see an immense network of motorway systems covering the British Isles, like the rest of the industrialised world. But simultaneously we will probably see the first traffic-free areas established in cities and large towns, blocks of several square miles where the only form of transport, other than one's own legs, will be some type of battery-powered, non-exhaust emitting public vehicle. The roads into major cities will be controlled by toll gates, with premium tolls charged at holiday and peak congestion periods.

It seems inevitable that we will gradually surrender our present freedom to step into our cars and drive where and when we wish across the entire area of the British Isles. Traffic movements and densities will be increasingly watched and controlled by electronic devices, automatic signals and barriers. On August Bank Holiday or Christmas Eve, for example, major holiday routes to the south coast and the West Country would be closed once a set number of vehicles had passed through the toll-gates.

Electronic counters like those used by London Transport for its buses would be mounted on all roads, signalling the opening and closing of toll-gates hundreds of miles away. These controls would ensure that people staggered their holidays, and could even be used as an instrument of government policy, moving hundreds of thousands of people away from overcrowded resort areas to those that are less popular.

By the closing years of the century the first serious attempts will be made to achieve the direct electronic control of individual vehicles. Experimental schemes have already been visualised in which each car is hooked by radio on to an electronic signal transmitted from a metal strip in the centre of the road, obeying its commands and matching its speed to a computer-controlled traffic flow.

Ultimately, I feel, all legislation aimed at the car is really aimed at the one feature that provides both its greatest freedom and its greatest dangers -- the steering wheel. Looking beyond the next thirty years to the middle of the 21st century (when many children now alive will still be driving), I see its final elimination. Sooner or later, it will become illegal to drive a car with a steering wheel. The private car will remain, but one by one its brake pedal, accelerator and control systems, like the atrophying organs of our own bodies, will be removed.

What will take the place of the steering wheel? In all likelihood, a wheel of a different kind -- a telephone dial. When our great-grandchildren sit down in their cars in the year 2050, they will see in front of them two objects -- one that resembles a telephone, the other a telephone directory. The directory will contain a list of all possible destinations, each with a number that may be dialled.

Having selected his destination, our driver will look up the number and then dial it on telephone. His signal will be transmitted to the transport exchange, where the ever-watching computers of Central Traffic Control will hold his call, analysing it in terms of anticipated traffic flow en route, vehicle densities at the destination, metered toll charges to be recorded against the driver's account (or perhaps even instantly debited from his bank balance).

If his call is accepted on the basis of available traffic information, the computer will select the best route. Electronic signals transmitted from road cables will steer the car out of its garage. Invisible eyes will guide our driver's car over every inch of his journey, adjusting speed to the traffic stream, making small detours to avoid probable delays, expertly parking it for him at his destination.

Sometimes, of course, when our driver dials his destination, the number will be engaged. Central Traffic Control will have decided that there are already too many cars en route to Brighton, Blackpool or the Bronte country. A soothing and attractive recorded voice will invite the driver to try Woking, or Stockton-on-Tees or Scunthorpe. Alternatively, perhaps, a harsh and threatening voice will inform him that there was insufficient money in the bank to pay the toll-charges.

Clearly, the possibilities are endless. Almost anything one cares to say about the future will probably come true, and sooner than we think. I feel that most of these developments are inevitable, given rising populations, rising incomes and leisure, and that the car as we know it now is on the way out. To a large extent I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea -- freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and congestion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society.

However, given our fascination with the machine, the car will always be with us. The veteran car rally to Stuttgart proved this for me. Our grandchildren may not be able to drive a 1904 Renault Park Phaeton, to give that bone-bruising monster its full name, but they will be able to drive a 1971 Ford Capri or Rolls-Royce.

At various points around the British Isles there will be so-called Motoring Parks, in which people will be able to drive the old cars in the old way. Baffled at first by the strange pedals and switches sprouting from the floor and instrument panel able to vary the speed of the engine and the direction of the car with their own hands and feet, they will set off clumsily along the well-padded roads. Every so often they will come across traffic lights and road junctions, and be faced with the choice between turning left or turning right. As they become familiar with the pedals and steering wheel they will sense the exhilaration and freedom of being able to wind up these ancient engines and exceed the speed limits.

If they are really lucky they will be caught by a mock-policeman riding the most bizarre machine of all, something like a small metal horse, once called a motorcycle, but banned when no electronic system could be devised to control it. The real enthusiasts will even buy their own vintage cars venerable 1971 Ford Zodiacs and 1984 Jaguars. Now and then, as part of a festival or centenary, they will hold veteran car rallies in the traffic-free pedestrian zones of major cities. And on these occasions everyone will thoroughly enjoy three rare sensations: the smell of exhaust fumes, the noise and the congestion.