While driverless cars seem fancy, whose jobs are being replaced? As a claustrophobe whose life was nearly destroyed by anxiety disorder, the knowledge of a driver gives me a sense of safety that cannot be undervalued as technology moves forward. We cannot forget about the value of human professions and the meaning of empathy. It’s that time of year again. At Christmas I should probably be worrying about something normal, like turkey or duck, or how to handle the surge in consumer debt. My festive anxiety is a little more idiosyncratic. Full disclosure: I’m a nervous wreck. I am a long-term sufferer of anxiety disorder that manifests as extreme claustrophobia. I changed my life in order to get away from claustrophobic environments; left London in a state of panic. I can’t get the Tube or the train. I can’t drive and I don’t trust myself behind the wheels. What would happen when I go into a tunnel? I’d smash my car into a wall. Extreme claustrophobia is an incredibly underexposed condition, probably because its sufferers are too exhausted by it to write about it. But there are more of us than you think. So buses and coaches are my only option. My last salvation. Getting home for Christmas is difficult for everyone, but for a claustrophobe it’s like being buried alive in the bondage of crowded stations, overflowing buses, jam-packed motorways. I waste December having nightmares about travel. I wake up terrified. I lose my appetite a few days before the big journey and push myself into a point of exhaustion. I sip water to soothe my nerves on the day of the journey but that is a dangerous game of cat-and- mouse with my bladder, because obviously I can’t use those poky little public toilets you get on public transport. I have lived my life this way for such a long time that I have lost contact with friends and family I once considered close. When it comes to mental illness people only care so much and then you’re on your own. It’s the driver who makes me feel better. Seriously. I step on a train and there is no one to help me. No one to explain to me tersely how to get off the train if I need to have the conversation. Not that I would have the conservation in the first place, but I want to know it’s an option. The coach driver has such a positive impact on my life without even being aware of it. When you ride a coach there is a direct point of interaction between the driver as you board; for the nervous traveller it can be incredibly meaningful. And throughout the journey the driver is right in front of you, complaining under their breath about the traffic; a real-life person. This issue has plagued me for such a long time that I have utilised every self-care strategy going; I am much better. I no longer need to be collected by car from 200 miles away by a long-suffering and irritated parent. But the anxiety is still there. Knowing there is a human right there in front of me in charge of the vehicle is one of the most important aspects of every attempt I make to use public transport like a normal person. That’s why I hate hearing Philip Hammond preach about the future of driverless cars. I hate hearing the news in Singapore of a governmental pledge to have driverless buses on the roads by 2022. The automation of human roles shows a drastic disinterest in the value normal people find in their jobs. It also skates over the much more subtle interactivity that occurs between humans in the contexts. It’s that interactivity that keeps the world moving and keeps people alive. It keeps people people. It soothes anxiety to think of yourself as a passenger. Accept the lack of control you have. Try to actively disengage from fight-or- flight mode, that genetic hangover from our days of wrestling mammoths in the Ice Age. But automation destroys the secure thought of being a passenger; it turns it into an illusion. We might not want to sit on the driver’s lap but we want to know the driver is there as we ride the bus late at night on our own. It isn’t just claustrophobes who want to feel safe and who want to be able to trust in the empathetic ability of the human who drives the vehicle that takes them home.
We need to start valuing the incredibly important role played by so many people in lots of areas of society before they all get automated. Ahem. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?