The Blinding Blandness of Wheeled Whiteness


Mark Simpson on the col­our­less cars that hog today’s roads

I recently found myself – inex­plic­ably – in a fash­ion­able nightclub. Or as fash­ion­able a nightclub as Birmingham allows. I was the old­est per­son there, but what struck me about all the bright young things bop­ping around middle-aged me – in those rare moments when they weren’t snap­ping selfies with their smart­phones to post on Facebook  – was how bor­ingly dressed they were. Almost every­one was wear­ing white and black. It was like a cater­ing after-party.

Or, indeed, like the M6 that had brought me there earlier. White, you see, is now offi­cially the UK’s ‘favour­ite’ new car ‘col­our’, account­ing for 22 per cent of sales last year – 550,000 new ghost cars – tail­gated by black at 19 per cent. Grey is in third place with 14 per cent, just pip­ping sil­ver with 13 per cent.

I put ‘favour­ite’ and ‘col­our’ in quotes because, of course, white is not anyone’s favour­ite col­our. It’s not even a col­our. Nor is black. They are an absence of col­our. Grey/silver is an achromatic mix of both absences. Which is pre­cisely why people choose them. You can go wrong with col­ours. Glaringly wrong. So 68% of new car buy­ers avoid them.

Today every­one, like the young­sters in the nightclub, is ter­ri­fied of being taste­less. Or not being ‘cool’. Of giv­ing too much away. So every­one is being drear­ily sens­ible. Which isn’t actu­ally very cool at all. This may also explain why the UK’s top-selling car mod­els last year were Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Vauxhall Corsa, VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra. Want a por­trait of the UK today? Here’s a white Ford Fiesta.

White cars, pre­cisely because they have no col­our, are bet­ter at dis­guising dings and chips and dirt – their bland­ness blinds you to their imper­fec­tions. They also reportedly hold about five per cent more of their value from new than the mar­ket aver­age for used cars; which can be sev­eral hun­dred pounds after three years. In aus­ter­ity Britain this seems to be a ‘primary’ factor in new car purchases.

But then, every­one is now liv­ing in a house with white walls, white bath­rooms, white kit­chens and white bed linen. It seems we’ve all been vis­ited by one of those bossy TV ‘house doc­tors’ that tell you to dump your per­son­al­ity in a skip.

People choose a white car because it ‘doesn’t clash’ with their white lives. Forget White Van Man, here comes White Goods Man.

Some have sug­ges­ted that the phe­nom­enal rise in pop­ular­ity of white cars – back in 2007 they accoun­ted for just 1.1 per cent of sales – is down to Apple and the min­im­al­ist white­ness of their ‘cool’ products which have invaded our lives over the last decade.

Perhaps a gen­er­a­tion has been brain­washed into believ­ing that white is ‘cool’ (rather than just cold). But it rep­res­ents much more than this – a chan­ging atti­tude towards cars them­selves. They’re now accessory-gadgets rather than vehicles. ‘Mobiles’ rather than motors. Their Bluetooth func­tion­al­ity more import­ant than their engine capacity.

While at least sil­ver, last decade’s favour­ite ‘col­our’, recog­nised and cel­eb­rated cars as machines, white cars seem to sug­gest digital boxes with wheels. Or very expens­ive iPhone holders.

True, ‘neut­ral’ col­ours are kind of where we began with our love affair with the mass-market motor car. Henry T Ford fam­ously dic­tated you could have any col­our so long as it was black. But he only made that stip­u­la­tion after dis­cov­er­ing black took less time to dry – and, in the earlier part of the 20th Century, car painting/varnishing tech­niques were labor­i­ous, tak­ing many coats and even more days. Less time meant less costs which meant cheaper cars which meant more sales.

But even Mr Ford only made this mono­chro­matic stip­u­la­tion from 1915 until 1926, when demand and also increas­ing com­pet­i­tion saw him rein­tro­duce col­our to his cars. The 1920s were a flam­boy­ant, flap­per time for car col­ours. Depression and then war painted the 1930s and 1940s dull. The rock­ing 1950s saw the intro­duc­tion of pas­tels and two and three tone colours.

The swinging 1960s wore shiny metal­lic paints, includ­ing groovy gold. The glam 1970s were verd­ant with greens, browns and, er, mus­tard orange. The power-mad 1980s were sig­nal red, metal­lic black and cobalt blue. And the rav­ing 1990s were… metal­lic teal. Which may help explain why, by the Noughties, sens­ible sil­ver had become dom­in­ant.

Today’s paint tech­no­logy, hav­ing evolved spec­tac­u­larly from the horse and car­riage var­nish­ing tech­niques employed on early cars, is able to deliver breath-taking, vivid col­ours of hyp­notic depth and clar­ity, along with impress­ive dur­ab­il­ity and afford­ab­il­ity. Which makes it bit­terly ironic that col­our has appar­ently become some­thing you can only afford to risk if you’re an Oligarch, a pro­fes­sional foot­baller or Katie Price.

But per­haps penny-pinching eco­nom­ics, and safety con­cerns, will change the col­our of cars again – or rather, rein­tro­duce col­our. And what a col­our! Light yellow-green is the most vis­ible tint for vehicles in all-weather con­di­tions, par­tic­u­larly for that vital WHAT-THE-BLAZES?! peri­pheral vis­ion. Cars in this ‘wince­some’ hue are, unsur­pris­ingly, much less likely to be overlooked.

People will­ing to endure it may end up with lower insur­ance premi­ums. Or maybe a future gov­ern­ment, look­ing for fur­ther reduc­tions in road acci­dent stats and hav­ing noted that the pub­lic has already given up on choos­ing col­ours for their new cars, might offer drivers VED reduc­tions for adopt­ing it. In which case, the future might be chartreuse.

And everything is going to clash with it. If not actu­ally crash into it.

But it’s still bet­ter than white.

Originally appeared on Hitachi CVS

Smoking Wheels of Fire


Mark Simpson on why the dis­mal pleas­ure of smoking in cars should be stubbed out

This may sound a little strange, but I can smell if the people in the car in front are smoking. Even if my win­dows and theirs are up.  I do have a keen sense of smell, but I think the reason I can detect fag fumes so well is that I’m over-sensitised as the res­ult of child­hood aver­sion therapy.

Both my par­ents were chain-smokers. And they didn’t smoke any old sissy cigs, no sir­ree, they smoked hairy-chested, unfiltered Senior Service – so high tar they could have powered battle­ships. When our fam­ily under­took long car jour­neys to see in-laws, or to Cornwall for our sum­mer hols, it would be in a Rover full of sweets and tobacco by-products.

Perhaps I’m a par­tic­u­larly del­ic­ate flower, but four dec­ades on I still remem­ber how much I hated it. How much it made my eyes smart and my nose recoil every time one of them lit up. I dreaded the satanic red glow of the elec­tric cigar­ette lighter.

But my par­ents, like most people back in the 1970s, had no idea of what second-hand smoke (SHS) can do to children’s health, and prob­ably were in denial about what it was doing to theirs. If they had known about SHS I think they would have stopped back then – instead of three dec­ades later because they wanted to be able to con­tinue breathing.

A burn­ing cigar­ette pro­duces 4,000 chem­ic­als, most are pol­lut­ants and irrit­ants, 69 of them are known car­ci­no­gens. For chil­dren, we now know, SHS sig­ni­fic­antly increases the risk of asthma, chest and ear infec­tions, men­ingitis and cot death. Smoke in your fam­ily car and it becomes eleven times as pol­luted as a smoke-fugged bar – some­thing which was, mer­ci­fully, largely made a thing of the past when smoking in enclosed pub­lic spaces was banned in 2007.

But des­pite the know­ledge we now have about the danger of second-hand smoke, and des­pite nation­wide edu­ca­tion cam­paigns, too many adult smokers still insist on shar­ing theirs with their chil­dren when driv­ing. According to the BMA more than 430,000 chil­dren are exposed to SHS in cars every week. The Department of Health says that there were 300,000 GP vis­its and 9,500 hos­pital admis­sions in 2011 as a res­ult of chil­dren inhal­ing SHS.

So, from 1 October this year, drivers in England who con­tinue to smoke in cars with pas­sen­gers under the age of 18 could be fined £50. Which obvi­ously, as a bit­ter, former uncon­sen­sual car smoker, I regard as very wel­come, if some­what belated, news. Several other coun­tries, includ­ing Australia, Cyprus and parts of the US and Canada, already have a ban on smoking in cars with minors.

Simon Clark, dir­ector of the smokers lobby group Forest, is less happy how­ever. More sul­phur­ous, per­haps. He told the BBC there was ‘no jus­ti­fic­a­tion’ for the ban and that ‘the over­whelm­ing major­ity of smokers know it’s incon­sid­er­ate to smoke in a car with chil­dren and they don’t do it. They don’t need the state micro-managing their lives.’ Apparently writing-off those 430,000 chil­dren a week chok­ing on Mummy and Daddy’s driv­ing nicot­ine addiction.

He also claimed that the police won’t be able to enforce the ban, and ‘will need a small army of snoop­ers to enforce it.’

Not to worry, Mr Clark! Help is at hand! This spring the police plan to intro­duce unmarked lor­ries to patrol motor­ways and A-roads nation­ally. A three-month trial last year, where a police­man videos drivers’ illegal activ­it­ies from the lofty vant­age point of the HGV, led to the detec­tion of 462 motor­ing offences. These were mostly tex­ting or phoning or fail­ing to wear a seat-belt – but also included a driver brush­ing his teeth while at the wheel and another read­ing a news­pa­per while in slow-moving traffic.

So spot­ting and record­ing adults smoking with chil­dren in the car should be a breeze.

Though per­haps the man from Forest has a point. It would be much sim­pler to ban all smoking in any vehicles alto­gether, as the BMA has argued.

Apart from elim­in­at­ing the prob­lem of estab­lish­ing whether the pas­sen­gers are under age or not, and solv­ing per­sist­ent breaches of smoke-free legis­la­tion by shared work vehicles, refrain­ing from smoking while driv­ing when chil­dren or pas­sen­gers are present is not enough to pre­vent the harm­ful effects of tobacco smoke being passed onto others.

All those lovely, rich tox­ins in tobacco smoke are impreg­nated – along with the lovely, rich aroma – in the plastics, car­pet and uphol­stery of the vehicle, ready to share their love with who­ever rides in that car. It’s not just my obsess­ive­ness talk­ing – it’s a recog­nised prob­lem with a name: third-hand smoke.

What’s more, smoking behind the wheel is poten­tially dan­ger­ous to oth­ers in itself. Looking for and light­ing cigar­ettes can be a major dis­trac­tion, even without the burn­ing stick fall­ing into your lap; smoking while driv­ing may be as dis­tract­ing as mobile phone use, which is of course already banned. A study in 2008 found that smokers are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as non-smokers, inde­pend­ent of demo­graphic factors and risk-taking.

A total ban would also help rein­force the mes­sage about smoking. Even after all these dec­ades of know­ing what cigs do there are 79,000 deaths in the UK a year from smoking.

Even bet­ter, it would mean that I never have to smell the car in front’s fag smoke again.

I real­ise though that it may take some time for the British pub­lic to be per­suaded of the need for a total ban on smoking in cars. After all, it was once one of the nation’s favour­ite, if most dis­mal, past-times. Perhaps I should move to Taiwan, which plans to ban smoking while driv­ing a car, rid­ing a bike or walk­ing on a sidewalk.

Which seems per­fectly reas­on­able to me.

Originally appeared on Hitachi Capital Vehicle blog

Man-Knockers on the London Underground

A funny thing happened to Mark Simpson on the way to the ‘Being a Man’ forum

I almost fell off the plat­form when I saw this body­build­ing sup­ple­ments poster bust­ing out all over the London Underground recently - around the same time as all that indig­nant hul­laba­loo sur­round­ing The Sun’s infam­ous now-you-don’t-see-them-any-more-now-you-do-again lady busts.

There they were, depil­ated man-knockers (and pixelated knack­ers) nakedly objec­ti­fied in the rush hour for all to see: men and women, chil­dren and adults, wide-eyed tour­ists and jaded loc­als. No need to buy a copy of a declin­ing tabloid news­pa­per, open it and turn to page three to ‘exploit’ this model’s tits and abs. Just look up from your smart­phone. Shameless male top­less and bottomless-ness plastered all over the walls for every­one to ‘gaze’ at while wait­ing for the next obscenely over­crowded Elephant & Castle train, per­haps car­ry­ing Laura Mulvey.

Even worse, the poster encour­aged other young men to objec­tify them­selves (‘reveal your­self’), and spend their hard-earned cash buy­ing sup­ple­ments that they hope will help to make them more desir­able, more sale­able, more shag­gable — bustier. Men are the new glam­our models.

The web­site for the sup­ple­ment com­pany includes ‘cover model’ as one of the poten­tial ‘goals’ that their sporno­sexual cus­tom­ers might be inter­ested in:

…lean muscle has become an industry recog­nised term that is now syn­onym­ous with a cover model look. To achieve a cover model body, the key con­sid­er­a­tion is to increase muscle whilst keep­ing body fat to an abso­lute minimum’.

And lib­eral use of Photoshop.

Funnily enough, I was on my way to appear on a panel at the Southbank Centre talk­ing about ‘Being a Man’ when I was con­fron­ted with these man-knockers. On the panel I was respond­ing to a present­a­tion by the artist and TV presenter Grayson Perry. Who is a bit of man knocker him­self — in a more ‘crit­ical’ sense.

Perry’s present­a­tion (along the lines of this piece for the New Statesman) was acerbic, enter­tain­ing and not without insight, but some­times seemed at least thirty years out of date. And I know this because I myself am only twenty years out of date.

My main issue with it was not that it prob­lem­at­ised and patho­lo­gised mas­culin­ity and ‘toxic’ testoster­one and the Sauronic ‘male gaze’ — which it did in spades — but that it reified, pos­sibly fet­ish­ised mas­culin­ity as some­thing unchan­ging, some­thing mono­lithic. Sometimes the biggest crit­ics of mas­culin­ity are its biggest believ­ers — includ­ing cross-dressing fem­in­ist men.

Of course, I tend to notice far too much what some don’t care to see at all — and I began my com­ments by warn­ing the audi­ence that I like men. A LOT. But I was sur­prised how little Mr Perry seemed to under­stand me when talk­ing about the eager self-objectification young men today go in for and the break­down of what I call the het­ero­sexual divi­sion of labour, of look­ing and of loving.

I won­der if he uses the tube? Or even his eyes?


The recently-released movie ver­sion of Fifty Shades of Grey has been attacked by some fem­in­ists for set­ting back ‘the cause of woman­hood’ (because it fea­tures female sub­missive­ness and male mas­ter­ful­ness) and for glor­i­fy­ing ‘abuse’ (des­pite being very con­sen­sual). Notwithstanding it is writ­ten by a woman, dir­ec­ted by a woman (Sam Taylor-Johnson), green-lighted by a woman — and of course enorm­ously pop­u­lar with women. Likewise, the rehab­il­it­a­tion of female mas­ochism in the last dec­ade or so seems to have been for­got­ten and replaced by sus­pi­cion of women who like their sex sub­missive and spanky.

I haven’t seen the movie, I’m still recov­er­ing from going to see the last ‘event’ ‘chick flick’, so can’t com­ment on whether or not the women involved in mak­ing it and the mil­lions going to see are suf­fer­ing from ‘false con­scious­ness’. And obvi­ously I don’t know much about woman­hood anyway.

But I have watched the offi­cial trailer. Repeatedly. The mas­ter­ful Mr Grey (Jamie Dornan) is a standard-issue sporno­sexual who prob­ably has a Bulk Powders Gold Card. In the 2.23 min trailer there are 7 top­less shots of his sculp­ted torso, includ­ing a mir­ror shot which gives you a sim­ul­tan­eous, spitroast­ing front and rear view of it, vs 1.5 of Ms Steele (Dakota Johnson), sans nipples in her case. Oh, and one side shot of her panties — with Dornan’s pretty face in front of them.

My favour­ite shot though shows him play­ing his grand piano shirt­less, in a scene that looks a bit Behind the Candelabras - but with Liberace as the toy-boy. I sup­pose that the grand piano rep­res­ents Ms Steele sub­mit­ting to the skill­ful fin­gers of Mr Grey. But it looks like a very camp — sorry, I mean mas­ter­ful — form of masturbation.


Invasion of the Driverless Cars

Mark Simpson on the head­less horse­men of the com­ing ‘carpocalypse’

Look out! They’re com­ing! And they’re driv­ing really, really carefully!

This year driver­less cars will arrive in the UK. As part of Government-sanctioned tri­als, the ghost cars will be quietly and sin­isterly creep­ing around selec­ted parts of Greenwich, Bristol, Coventry and Milton Keynes. Though some would argue that Milton Keynes was conquered by robots years ago.

The UK Government also recently announced that a driv­ing licence would not be neces­sary to use a driver­less car and expressed its inten­tion to make Britain a world centre for driver­less cars.

This may ulti­mately res­ult in much safer roads, less con­ges­tion, faster travel times and cheaper insur­ance, as well as a life-changing boon to dis­abled and eld­erly people. But it will be the begin­ning of the end of the world as we’ve known it for most of the last cen­tury. Albeit in a very bor­ing fashion.

Yes, for the time being the only com­mer­cially avail­able self-driving vehicles are harm­less open-air shuttles for ped­es­trian zones that oper­ate at an under­whelm­ing max­imum speed of just 12.5 mph. But don’t be fooled.

Proper car man­u­fac­tur­ers are plan­ning to change all that. Nissan aims to launch driver­less mod­els by 2020. Tesla claims that their cars will be 90 per cent cap­able of autonom­ous driv­ing this year. And Google believes that its Level 4 autonom­ous cars – that is, totally self-driving – will be avail­able to the pub­lic within the next 3 to 5 years. One of their zom­bie cars already passed the Nevada state driv­ing test in 2012. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers believes that by 2040, 75 per cent of all vehicles will be autonomous.

Worse, the dast­ardly road robots are here already, or at least their fifth colum­nists in the form of all those ‘driver’s aids’ fit­ted in pro­duc­tion cars today. Self-parking and emer­gency brak­ing are com­mon, while adapt­ive cruise con­trol is avail­able on a wide range of pro­duc­tion cars – using cam­eras, lasers and radar, it can con­trol your dis­tance from the vehicle in front as well as, on some mod­els, stay­ing in lane.

Some cars such as the latest Nissan Qashqai can now even ‘read’ speed limit signs – just in case you don’t have a passive-aggressive part­ner to do that for you.

But per­haps the most dan­ger­ous fifth colum­nists for the driver­less cars inva­sion are the humans who enthuse about them. They paint a pic­ture of a safe, stress free, lux­uri­ous future in which we’re all Lady Penelope, driven around by our robot Parker, who never ever makes any mis­takes – and doesn’t see what’s going on in the back.

Or else they think they they’re going to be David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider, with his trusty, rather tasty KITT. Or Tom Cruise in Minority Report in his sexy autonom­ous Lexus. In real­ity, driver­less cars will be much more like the chirpy, crappy robot taxis in Total Recall. But without the joy­stick over­ride that Arnold was able to grab hav­ing uprooted and ejec­ted the annoy­ing robot driver.

Once humans are unplugged from the busi­ness of driv­ing cars and become instead glor­i­fied lug­gage, the auto­mobile will stop being an exten­sion of the human body/spirit/ego. Instead of some strange, techno body-art, this wheeled thing that humans have had a tor­rid, Freudian love-affair with for over a cen­tury will become a long dis­tance auto­matic pick-up machine, shut­tling people around like stock in an espe­cially gigantic Amazon ware­house. While they update their Twitter status with pic­tures of the view of the strange ‘Real World’ glimpsed from the car win­dow – and buy more stuff online.

One man’s uto­pia is another’s ‘car­po­ca­lypse’. Cars will van­ish from the sides of our streets and car shar­ing will become usual rather than excep­tional. Über + driver­less cars = the end of mass car own­er­ship. Taxi drivers, chauf­feurs, lorry drivers and much of the ancil­lary motor­ing busi­ness of car deal­ers, gar­ages and spare parts will be scrapped. Essex will become depopulated.

With fewer cars and greater effi­ciency, con­sump­tion of fuel is likely to fall dra­mat­ic­ally, and along with it gov­ern­ment rev­enue. People await­ing organ trans­plants might have to wait longer, since traffic col­li­sions are the main source of human spare parts.

There will be no going back. There’s no reverse gear on car auto­ma­tion. Once sur­rendered to robot cars, human agency is gone forever. I don’t mean that in a Stephen Hawking AI Skynet takeover sense – though that as well – but that even­tu­ally most driver­less cars, like Google’s already, won’t have steer­ing wheels or pedals.

They would only get in the way, and be a reminder to the pas­sen­gers of their obsol­es­cence. Most of all, it would be frankly crazy to allow people who haven’t actu­ally driven any­thing for years except their fin­ger over their smart­phone – or Grand Theft Auto – to take con­trol of a vehicle in an emer­gency.

We don’t need to wait until all or even most of cars on the roads are driver­less. Once there are sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers of them on the road they will change the way human-operated cars drive – mak­ing them drive more like machines. Which is very bad news when humans do it. Studies have shown that human drivers shar­ing roads with autonom­ous cars copy the autonom­ous cars’ driv­ing styles and leave less space between the vehicle in front. But are not able to stop nearly as quickly.

As the num­ber of driver­less cars on our roads rise, insur­ance premi­ums for human oper­ated cars are likely to rap­idly become pro­hib­it­ive, espe­cially when com­pared to goody-goody autonom­ous ones that never nod off, smoke, eat, drink, do their hair, use their mobiles or look for a Genesis CD while driving.

Perhaps the scar­i­est devel­op­ment is the way autonom­ous cars could have ‘eth­ics set­tings’ to deal with the ‘trol­ley bus dilemma’ – do I kill that child or my pas­sen­ger? Split second decisions which were usu­ally a secret between you and your god will have to be legis­lated and coded.

We will have made machines not just our unpaid and unloved chauf­feurs but also our judges and executioners.

Originally appeared on Hitachi CVSL blog