BORIS JOHNSON: The Tesla ride with my wife and baby on the hair-raising roads of Los Angeles that convinced me that self-driving cars ARE the future

Self-driving Teslas – a new type of car, so ridiculous, so daring, so revolutionary that ten years ago I would have refused to believe it was possible, writes Boris Johnson

It takes a lot of courage to get into any car through the streets of Los Angeles. This morning I was watching the TV news in our hotel, and when they’re not talking about hush money for Stormy Daniels, they’re going to see live traffic reports – and boy, this is Prang City.

Every major artery flashes with accumulations, and one has the impression that the Angelenos are in a state of constant collision, like some kind of subatomic particles. Heaven knows what they do: watch the stock market, beat up their kids, crane their necks to read the ubiquitous giant billboards advertising the services of Better Call Saul-style accident lawyers.

Whatever the reason, the population of this city suffers 52,000 car accidents every year – that’s more than 140 shunts, bumps, dents and fender benders every day, and I’m afraid there are of course many hundreds of people who are in bad shape, get injured or lose their lives.

All this carnage takes place in normal motor vehicles, where the drivers are supposed to pay the utmost attention to the road. We are talking about conventional machines, where people do their utmost – with all their ringing senses – to anticipate each other’s mistakes, study the traffic and turn the wheel in time.

Self-driving Teslas – a new type of car, so ridiculous, so daring, so revolutionary that ten years ago I would have refused to believe it was possible, writes Boris Johnson

Self-driving Teslas – a new type of car, so ridiculous, so daring, so revolutionary that ten years ago I would have refused to believe it was possible, writes Boris Johnson

Today, however, I am about to entrust my life, and the lives of my wife and my ten-month-old baby, to a very different kind of machine: one that no one – or at least no human – has control over. .

We are about to be transported in a new type of car, so ridiculous, so daring, so revolutionary that ten years ago I would have refused to believe it was possible. Maybe on a test track; perhaps in laboratory conditions – but I never expected to see it in the busy traffic of a major urban center.

I’m about to enter the seething Limpopo of LA streets, full of predatory crocodiles and speeding hippos, in a car that drives itself. We get into a car with no eyes to see, no hands to signal and no feet to hit the brakes.

This car has no natural terror, no paranoia that is so important to human drivers. It has just dozens of small cameras, the size of jelly tots, discreetly and largely invisibly hidden behind its sleek white bodywork; and it has a neural system, an electronic brain, that is becoming more powerful every week.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can report that the overall effect is astonishing. Do you remember the part of the poem in which the sturdy Cortes sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time from the Andes, and looks at it with eagle eyes while all his men stare at each other with wild suspicion?

Those are the kinds of looks that pass between us – a wild guess – as we drive away smoothly in that self-driving Tesla.

I sit behind the steering wheel, but I don’t touch it, and even though my feet are close to the pedals, I don’t use them – and oh my word, the steering wheel turns itself.

At first it’s eerie, like watching a ghost press the keys of a piano. Now it’s pointing, yielding, floating through traffic with all the delicacy and tact of a living driver. It’s so human, I’m sobbing, so smooth.

“Butter soft,” agrees the man from Tesla. He’s there to watch over his expensive prototype, but he doesn’t do anything, I assure you, to drive or drive it.

Now we have come to a very difficult intersection, where five roads meet, in the middle of Beverly Hills, and we have to turn left. The traffic comes at us quite quickly, bustling through the streets with their lofty palms and $100 million houses.

What the hell happens, I wonder, if this thing stops working now?

Embarrassing or what? What if it has a seizure, a suicidal episode like the onboard computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey? What if Putin is already in his brain, and some Russian bot is preparing to throw us headlong into the oncoming steel wall?

What if the navigation system has a malfunction and suddenly has no idea where it is?

Don’t worry, says the Tesla man. No satellites are needed. And he’s right. With impeccable good manners, giving ample notice to all other vehicles, we turn left, and I relax enough to take in the audacity of Tesla’s plan.

There are already a few self-driving cars on LA’s roads that are licensed to carry passengers. They’re run by a company called Waygo, and they have large rotating sensory turrets on the roof. But they can only cover a very small part of the city because they are specifically programmed to understand those streets.

This Tesla machine is much more ambitious and thanks to its cameras and neural network, it can go anywhere – once it is fully licensed and approved.

“It’s more than safe,” says the Tesla man. “It’s five to six times safer than a human driver.”

Think of what we human drivers have to do, he explains. You are constantly looking at the road and constantly turning around. ‘But even if you have eyes in the back of your head, you can’t see as much as we do. We see 100 percent.’

As he talks, a man slowly staggers into the traffic ahead, looking a little worse for wear. Instinctively I reach for the steering wheel; my toe pulls towards the brake; but I didn’t have to worry.

The car has been anticipating me for a long time and keeping an eye on the man – indeed a small human statue has appeared on the electronic street view on the dashboard.

We effortlessly slow down and dive around him. After about 45 minutes I feel like a driving test examiner – except I want to tell the car it passed with flying colors.

There was only one moment of mild confusion when we pulled up in front of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. A uniformed doorman appeared and gestured for us to come forward.

The car didn’t move. The man waved again. The car still did nothing.

Ah yes, said the Tesla man. “It doesn’t recognize that gesture yet, but we’re fixing it for the next iteration.” It should happen next month.

“This car is incredible, but it’s the worst it will ever be, and it’s getting exponentially better.”

In 2009, I test-drove an electric Tesla roadster for the first time, which at the time was shaped like a Lotus. It ended up on the M40 and I was left with some skepticism about the future of the brand.

Well, I won’t make that mistake again. It seems strange now. It seems crazy. But I’ve seen enough to know that it will happen, and that sooner or later there will be a tipping point.

Everyone will do it: read a book, play cards, or simply nap behind the wheel of vehicles that move under their own power: faster, quieter, with less pollution – and safer.

Literary corner

*On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer: a sonnet by John Keats describing his wonder while reading the ancient Greek poet Homer, as translated by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman

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