The British press loves to snipe at Top Gear, in part because Top Gear keeps giving them reasons to do that. But a new column in the Telegraph crosses the line from criticism into an illogical and clueless rant about cars, driverless cars, and women.
You know it's going to problematic from its headline, "How men fell out of love with the car." Sniffing columnist Neil Lyndon says he welcomes the advent of the self-driving car because it "might finally polish off Top Gear." Huh?
It will provide no opportunity for that wolfish grin at the camera as the speedometer hits 200 mph. There will be no more roaring "phwoar!" as the car smokes away its tyres in a doughnut spin. What special gifts and powers of control can the presenter claim when the car is travelling placidly through a corner under its own direction? What will be the purpose of the presenter at all, other than to tell us what book s/he is reading while the car is wending its serene way on the road?
Good lord, where do I even start here? First, there's the fact that Lyndon seems to cheer for the appliance-ification of automobiles. I don't even need to say why I disagree with that; if you're reading Jalopnik, you feel the same way.
But then Lyndon must think that within the next few years, all new cars — maybe even all cars — will be replaced with panda-looking robots with no pedals or steering wheels that putter around while we take naps in the back.
It's not going to be like that. Not for decades, at least, if ever. Most likely new cars will come with increasingly autonomous functions, as many of them already do. And if there's any category of car that will keep drivers involved, it will be sports cars — the kinds of cars Top Gear likes to test.
Do you actually think Ferrari will ever make an autonomous vehicle? Or that we'll ever get an autonomous Miata? Who would buy that, and how could a car company build a business case for such a vehicle? I refuse to believe that autonomous cars will put those companies out of business, either — there will always be drivers, especially at the higher ends of the spectrum.
So now that Lyndon has demonstrated he doesn't really know anything about the auto industry beyond a few headlines he's read about the Google Car, we move on to the worst part of his column: what it says about men and women.
Hasten the day. Top Gear has got a lot to answer for but one of its leading offences has been to outlaw cars as a subject for discussion in the presence of women. You can get away with politics or business at a dinner party (subjects that used to be forbidden in what was known as polite company). You might even be tolerated for five minutes with a strained smile if you bring up the subject of football. But mention cars and you invite the big sigh and the rolling eyes that go with the acid question "Oh dear: you boys aren't going to have one of those dreary Top Gear talks, are you?" Was there ever a woman who liked Top Gear?
The advent of the driverless car should mean that discussion of cars will become as gender-neutral as talking about the best iron to buy; or flat-screen television; or any other device essential to domestic life. Eliminating excitement and involvement from cars might make them boring but it will be almost worth the price. It won't make cars cool but it might, at least, make them admissible.
Emphasis mine. Oh man, my head is spinning after reading that.
What's truly and fundamentally flawed about Lyndon's column is that it is written from a perspective that cars are only for men, that driving and working on cars and racing are things solely to be enjoyed solely by men. It is a perspective that is dated, and sexist, and now in 2014, simply incorrect.
Yes, the auto world is one historically dominated by (white) men, but that's changing rapidly. This is good because it means more talented people will be brought into the fold. Has Lyndon not noticed that a woman runs General Motors these days? That women racing drivers compete at nearly every level of motorsports? Does he know women make most of the new car purchasing decisions now? He's a Brit; shouldn't he know that a woman is the deputy principal of the Williams Formula One team?
Hell, he should know that woman, Claire Williams, was just griping about how she's viewed differently from her male colleagues in the racing world. In the Telegraph. You know, the newspaper he works for. That one.
Also, Top Gear has female fans too. I'm not really sure how he can say it doesn't. It's fun to hear engine noises and watch crazy cars get sideways.
The auto industry and the culture that surrounds it has a long way to go toward including women, that's definitely true. But Lyndon's thesis seems to be that cars are for boys, and Top Gear has made cars so repugnant that they are alienating women entirely.
That simply isn't true, and it's an idea that prevents women from getting involved in cars and racing. It's part of a larger attitude that keeps women out of technical fields in general, whether it's automotive engineering or the tech sector or math and science.
Has Top Gear's childish nationalism, dalliances with casual sexism and occasional racism been a problem? Sure, but at the end of the day it's just a television show, and hardly one that's destroying car culture as a whole.
Speed is for everyone, and it's becoming more inclusive. That's a great thing. And neither driverless cars nor a TV show with some occasional eye roll-inducing moments will change that. I like to think of it as progress.