HECKLER

<em>Illustration: Simon Letch</em>

Illustration: Simon Letch

 RECENTLY, on YouTube, I saw a dog driving a car. Well, ''driving'' is a bit of a stretch because Fido's paws were roped to the steering wheel and he ''steered'' it around a gentle curve for about 20 metres at negligible speed. A driving instructor walked alongside urging him on. It got me thinking about what skills we humans need to actually drive today.

Over a hundred years or so, the motorcar has evolved to become - for better or worse - an essential part of 21st century life. But, as it has morphed from the crude ''horseless carriage'' into the useful and often beautiful thing it is today, our ability to tactually control it is gradually being lost. Over not too many years, driving ability has been steadily eliminated by computer chips, engineers and car makers peddling more and more ''kit'' - a word the motoring press coyly use to describe the stuff that is only useful if you can't actually drive. By natural selection, we are evolving into a species that is losing a uniquely human talent. Soon the word ''drive'' itself will become an anachronism.

Time was you needed to engage with a car; to actually push switches and turn knobs to make it operate safely according to changing weather, traffic and road conditions. Now, I'm not comparing that with today's genuine safety aids; anti-lock braking systems, air bags, safety belts, crumple zones and the like. But ''rain-sensing wipers'' and ''auto lights on''? Give me a break. If you can't tell it's raining or getting dark then you're either drunk or blind. Either way, you shouldn't be behind the wheel.

The reason you see so many people failing to indicate they're about to make a turn is because they're forgetting what that protuberance behind the steering wheel is for and they're confused about all the other stuff it does, too. And if you need ''auto park'' to park and a ''cornering function'' (whatever that is) to go around corners then, logically, you can't park or steer - two essential driving skills, it seems to me. A popular model on the market boasts - among other ''driving aids'' - radar cruise control, blind spot monitoring, auto braking and a crash warning system. Like I say, if you require these to drive, then you should give it away.

So forgive me if I'm sceptical about the proliferation of devices we're coming to rely on that replace basic driving competence, and seem merely designed to sell more cars to the gimmick-obsessed. Many years ago, automatic gearboxes eliminated the skill needed to change gears and it appears that, like the dog, the only faculty we'll need soon is the ability to steer. But then again …

Christopher McCullough