1 Weíve all done it. Or at least if you were born before the millennium and felt the need to travel on the cheap, you most probably have. But those stubbier appendages on the ends of your hands will soon be useful for nothing more adventurous than swiping the pages of airbnb, because the fast approach of driverless cars signals a new culture for road life ñ and a world where the hitch hiker is a drive-by relic of the past.
2 EasyJet and the internet have taken us a long way to ensure travel on the cheap, but nothing beats the buzz of a random ride. All you need is a smile, a scribbled cardboard sign and the willingness to be patient. Okay, that patience bit can be tricky: back in the summer of 1984, I stood with a student mate on the slip-road for Parisí autoroute de soleil. We began our benign backpacking quest for free seats south at 11.00amÖ and at 7.00pm were still standing, thumbs aching, and questioning whether the French are the meanest bunch of car-sharing gits in the world. The fact that the first lift we got was from a road-rage psychopath given to 90mph tailgating was just rubbing salt in to the wound.
3 Did I say it can also be dangerous? Drivers often pick up hitchers when they face a long journey, in the hope of company thatís less soporific than the radio. A small-hours ride from Orange to Marseille later in that adventure underlines the point. The driver screeched to the kerb in his Renault 5 and was clearly on a mission. He had to be in Marseille by dawn; but he had to evade something, hopefully just the police, by taking back roads. He didnít want a hitch-hiker, he wanted someone to make sure he didnít fall asleep. After four hours of unofficial motorsport with my fingernails in the dashboard, he dropped us in the city, along with his curiously urgent delivery package. Meeting a fellow hitch-hiker the next day whoíd been beaten and dumped naked in the hills above Marseille, somehow led us to the train station for our next leg.
4 So yes, hitching is hardly how Iíd like my children to spend their gap year, but as long as youíre worldly-wise, it can be a literal free ticket for seeing the world. Most memorable hitches I recall in Europe include a glamorous blonde in an open-topped roadster through the Swiss Alps, sharing lunch with a local family in Belgium, an overnight country-crossing kip in a pantechnicon, and countless conversational insights into the lives of people weíd otherwise miss while trapped in some forgettable public timetable. Yet that magic free ticket is about to be ripped up for good.
5 Before we ask why, letís rewind and ask where hitching is today. Short answer: itís already a dwindling pastime. Chief factors broadly come down to fear/risk (see above), cheaper and easier access to personal transport and lift-seekers changing their approach. Why, after all, show up and hope when you can use social media, pre-plan and join the less-risky car share movement. Fast forward to self-driving cars and picture this: as a passenger, how likely will you be to over-ride the itinerary for that solitary hitcher, especially when you have no need for company because youíre busy surfing the web, facetiming the office or plain sleeping. Cars waste passenger space today roughly to the tune of 80 per cent; the advent of driverless wheels certainly, for all its promises of added efficiency, bodes to do little to dent that through bums on empty seats.
6 So is that the end of the line for hitchers? Not quite. Over in the USA, where hitching has seen a huge decline, a new show-up and jump-aboard system is growing ñ and they call it ìsluggingî. As the website slug-lines.com reveals, this unarranged car sharing scheme is hugely popular around congested cities (where slugging means the driver can use multiple occupancy lanes or avoid a toll for solo driving). Listen up, robocar programmers: itís rude not to share, so letís keep a button to stop for anyone waving a thumb.