Let the road-train take the strain

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Only two things matter when choosing a car. What is it like to drive fast? And what is it like to drive very, very slowly? Forget about cornering and acceleration. Very little of our time in cars is spent negotiating hairpin bends or revving chavvishly at a junction. Most motoring falls into two distinct categories.

1) Superb driving conditions: driving at night, or best of all in France (whose admirable policy of motorway pricing leaves their best roads free for the enjoyment of British tourists–since paying to use a motorway twice a year is much less painful than paying twice a day).

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2) Dreadful road conditions: gridlock; tailbacks; attempting to navigate motorway service stations without ending up in the lorry park; tackling the absurdly positioned ramps in multi-storey car parks. (Most car parks are atrociously designed. But beneath Bloomsbury Square in London is the Guggenheim of underground car parks. Built in the 1960s, it is a perfect double-helix, with the twin spirals connected at intervals–as in DNA–by horizontal links. This means you do not have to go all the way to the bottom and back in order to leave, although you do, obviously, for the sheer joy of it.)

For a car that is good to drive very fast and very slowly, buy a luxury car with automatic transmission. And buy it second-hand. This was always the policy of Edward de Bono, who bought second-hand Jaguars, explaining that ‘the type of people who like luxury cars don’t like buying them used’, which is why they depreciate so fast from new. The best bargains may be luxury cars from non-luxury marques: the VW Phaeton, say, or the Citroën C6.

But there is a further reason to buy second-hand. It allows you guiltlessly to own a car with an insane number of optional extras. My inner Presbyterian would never allow me to pay 2,000 [pounds sterling] for a sunroof or 500 [pounds sterling] for a digital radio, but with a used car you can plausibly tell your conscience/wife ‘No, of course I didn’t pay for it–the damn thing was in the car when I bought it.’

That’s how I ended up with a car with Adaptive Cruise Control. And I love it. You set your chosen speed, as with standard cruise control but, if a car in front is going more slowly, Adaptive Cruise Control will decelerate you to its speed, then tail it at a set distance, braking or accelerating as necessary–wonderfully effortless. Better still, since the driver in front is first to be flashed by speed cameras, you can use him as an early warning system, like a canary in a mine.

The only thing you have to do is steer. And before long, even this may be unnecessary. SARTRE is a European project to create ‘road-trains’ using a further development of this technology. A professional driver headed to Glasgow could acquire a ‘platoon’ of followers as he headed up the M6. Cars can electronically latch on to the hindmost car in the train, allowing the driver to read, make phone calls or even (if very trusting) fall asleep.

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Feasible technically? It already works. Admittedly it may be a while before people feel comfortable with the idea. But it is a half-step which may prepare people for Google’s self-driving car.

What both projects suggest is that the potential for significant innovation in road transport is far greater than we realise–and probably much greater than the potential for innovation in rail travel. Road transport allows for tinkering and diverse experimentation in a way that railways simply don’t. So, if we want to future-proof Britain, it isn’t a railway we should be building through the Chilterns: it’s a motorway.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather UK