I don’t know if I’d qualify as a real petrol-head – on what most writers or illustrators earn, buying a car is a rare pleasure. But I definitely love driving, and I always grab at the chance to try a car I’ve never driven before. It’s not the speed I’m into – although that can be fun too. It’s the whole thing: controlling the car, learning about the engineering and design, seeing how the whole system of driving works out on the roads, where we all have to take responsibility for ourselves, and how we relate to each other when we’re driving. It’s easy to see how people can get obsessed with cars.
I got to experience a different side of it recently, when I went on an off-road driving course in Oldcastle. This is basically the skill of driving where cars just aren’t meant to go. Having driven my car up various rough mountain roads on my way to the start of a hillwalk, I can appreciate the skill it takes to go off-road altogether. And this was great craic.
I was surprised at just how slow you have to go – a lot of the time, you don’t use the accelerator at all, just letting the jeep roll forward (a 4×4 with a big engine will move on its own, once the engine is running and it’s in gear). In the rough spots, I rarely got out of first gear. I spent a surprising amount of the session without my feet on the pedals at all.
After being given a few brief pointers, I was stuck straight behind the wheel, and we were off along the course. At first we drove on trails around this guy’s farm (this is a part time thing for him), letting the vehicle follow the ruts in the ground across a couple of fields. But then we were taking deeper and steeper trails, where the stony gouges in the earth threatened to pull the tyres of the car if you didn’t steer properly. My instinct was often to try and steer out of potholes, or accelerate up over ruts, but it was all about patience and keeping a steady course. The vehicle could suddenly jump a rut and lose control if I gave it too much gas trying to overcome the terrain.
Not getting stuck was obviously one of the things to learn. This got trickier as we went down into ditches, through water that reached up to the tops of the wheels, with nothing but mud and rocks on the bottom. This was often done in a ditch with a tight turn, so you had to use the power and steering on terrain that fought against both. There were times I thought we’d get stuck on a climb, or going over a high bank, or tear out the bottom of the jeep on rocks. We finished up by climbing up and down steep banks, sometimes tipping the vehicle so far over to the side that it felt as if it was going to roll, but again, it was all about staying your course.
There are lots of these courses around, and I’d highly recommend the experience to anyone who likes driving. They make a great gift, and it’s better than buying more stuff.
I think it’s an ongoing challenge to use technology that works with the environment, rather than against it. We don’t live natural lives, but we can keep some of the best bits of natural living by combining environmental design, pragmatism and a bit of sensitivity. Wind turbines are a good example of this. A lot of people are offended by their presence on the landscape, and I can understand this. But if we have to have a means of producing electrical power, I’d rather those things than a power station that ruins the view altogether and spews out fumes. And I quite like how they look.
For me, their function and their design together make them attractive. They’re not going to solve our power problems on their own, but people who say renewable power can’t replace fossil fuels simply aren’t being realistic. The money, time and research spent digging oil and coal out of the ground, or producing nuclear fuel, is staggering. Put a fraction of that into developing means of harnessing the winds, the tides and geothermal power and we’d crack it much, much faster.
On a related note, I was sent this link to an article on an Icelandic architect’s firm that has proposed the design of human-shaped electricity pylons. You can see a concept image in the picture above. They would use the same materials and engineering as existing pylons, but simply be constructed in different shapes. There’s no getting away from the fact that pylons are always going to be ugly, but I liked this idea. At least they’d have a bit of character. And they can be built in different poses, bending forward to climb hills, kneeling down, looking at each other, etc. I think it’s best to run cables underground whenever you can, but it’s not always practical. This is an intriguing alternative. But more importantly, it shows that there are people out there who are thinking in different directions to solve very old, boring problems about how we can get along a little better with the world we live in. That can only be a good thing.
The TED organization (Technology Entertainment Design) features a series of talks that are less than 6 minutes long. So I’m going to close up this post by pointing you towards this talk by Derek Sivers about challenging conventional assumptions.