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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Seventy years and cars

Abdel-Moneim Said reflects on what happened to one of his enduring interests, cars, amid parallel technological changes across the seven decades of his life

Abdel Moneim Said , Monday 26 Nov 2018
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I turned 70 last week. This may be a significant chronological landmark, although biological facts, such as one’s state of health as one continues to age, are probably no less important.

While I am not set on writing up my memoirs, perhaps because my life does not have that much to tell or teach, the world has certainly not been stationary during the past seven decades. In fact, it was packed with surprises, some breath-taking.

Because of my academic specialisation, I find that the developments in the international order since World War II are certainly worth viewing in terms of the surprise factor. In fact, I do this from time to time in my column for this newspaper.

Similarly, the Arab order, or the larger Middle East regional order, which currently stands at a crossroads, merits attention in this regard. In both the global and regional cases, the crucial question is: how did we get to “now”, to this particular stage in the present? Consciously or not, my seven decades reflect this process, not least because of its repercussions on both my personal and public life.

Of course, the world is not just about political history and the conflicts between nations or even civilisations. Nor is history just a record of human activity.

There have been other creatures on this planet. Many species are now extinct and those that remain are the subject of “biodiversity”.

At another level, 70 years may be but the “blink of an eye” (to borrow from a famous British politician, whose name I cannot remember, but who said that 150 years of empire is but a blink of an eye in terms of history), but this period brought an incredible amount of human interaction with manmade inventions for dealing with nature on the land, at sea, in the air, and from the depths of the earth to the furthest reaches of outer space.

All that technological evolution in 70 years and the ways it changed the lives of human beings should be recorded. But cars have always had a special meaning to me as a child born in 1948.

Our lives are a record of human development. Nothing testifies to this more than what has become the main mode of human transport since the era when humankind depended on animals for this purpose.

One is struck by two points in this regard. Firstly, the era of the automobile only superseded the era of the beast of burden after the midpoint of the 20th century.

Moreover, the era of animal-powered transport has not died out entirely. It still exists in the streets of Cairo and in other metropolises, such as New York, where some police still patrol on horseback.

Secondly, the automobile was not immune to technological revolutions after the invention of the combustion engine and the fully automatic transmission (1939).

To me this is epitomised by the first image I can conjure up from the treasure house of “consciousness”: the “hand crank”. I doubt any kids among the current generation would have the slightest idea what this is.

It was a metal rod, one end of which could be inserted into the front of a car and the other end of which was affixed to a handle that enabled one to rotate the shaft. Rotating the shaft generated the electric “contact” that kickstarted the motor into action. It was years before I found myself next a driver who could turn a simple key to initiate the “contact” and set the car into motion.

That was the first miracle I experienced, or so it seemed to me at the time. That hand crank was not an easy instrument. It took quite a bit of muscle power to turn it, and it also took quite a bit of patience because ignition rarely happened on the first go. The key to insert in the ignition switch was no ordinary invention.

Nor would this little tool remain unchanged. It would eventually acquire the powers to lock and unlock the car by remote control. Before the turn of the 21st century, it would become possible to start the motor before even getting into the car, just by pressing a button.

In addition to the progress in auto mechanics described above, major developments took place in the shape, size and speed of cars, as well as in the use of energy, especially with rising oil prices and mounting urban congestion.

Electric cars began to appear and motors would be equipped to run on both electricity and gasoline, or gasoline and natural gas. A qualitative shift occurred before the turn of this century when cars would become able to “feel” by means of sensors that made them aware of things around them and the feedback from which could be converted into beeps or flashing lights that cautioned a driver of an impending danger.

Thanks to the sensors, as well, vehicles could now manoeuvre themselves in tight places and relieve human beings of that difficult task of parallel parking.

The onset of this century would upend mankind’s relationship with cars just as it has thrown everything else into upheaval. Cars no longer need a driver at all.

I was in the US at the time of the first trials of driverless cars. At the time, it seemed that dozens of laws would have to be changed, not to mention conventions on the road.

Who would be responsible in the event of an accident? And there were a few. Panic struck, as it does in all phases of progress and development. Los Angeles postponed the experiment, but Louisiana took it up immediately.

I do not know what happened next. But I do know that many American cities have begun to prepare for the big day when all vehicles, both private and public, will operate without a driver, taking children to school or freighting goods to consumers.

But the real revolution was more profound. Car making is no longer the preserve of the conventional automotive manufacturers or the firms that have become the conventional manufacturers.

Apple, Google and other companies involved in “artificial intelligence” have entered the market. They may not, necessarily, produce such cars as the “Tesla”.

But they have contributed to turning cars into platforms for shaping and reshaping products to suit producers and consumers needs and fancies. Already, it is possible to send e-packages using drones to deliver, for example, cooked meals straight to a home while still hot.

The car is no longer a vehicle with an internal combustion engine that travels on streets. It is a machine of a different order, capable of flying in the air or cruising the terrain, depending on the instructions given by people or by robots programmed to do people’s work.

All this is happening in the “now” which unfolded during the past 70 years. I wonder what the next 70 years will bring.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Seventy years and cars  

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