Saudi King Salman recently announced that, as of June 2018, Saudi women will be allowed to drive. Why the delay? some have asked, missing the point that the real delay has been one of decades, not months.
These few months are important, with questions to resolve before a safe, orderly change can be made (unlike Nigeria, where, the story goes, one planner, working on the shift from driving on the left to driving on the right, suggested a phased transition where, initially, only lorries and taxis would drive on the right).
I have been part of the planning team, which, sensitive to the need to protect Saudi women’s virtuous image, has faced a fundamental question:
Who will we teach women to drive?
Male instructors would have been the logical choice. Saudi men are the ones who already know how to drive. And Saudi society has become accustomed to having women driven about by male chauffeurs, many of them outside the woman’s family.
We recognized, however, that there is a difference. Chauffeurs sit in front, women in the back, fully covered, often armed with a cellphone. In an instructional situation, teacher and student both must be in front, with the woman less than fully covered if she is to see the road and avoid getting buttons or pedals ensnarled in black cloth. And, Allah forbid, hands might touch, adjusting a mirror or reaching for the gearshift. NO MALE INSTRUCTORS, we decided.
We toyed with the idea of women teachers, but there are no qualified Saudi women, of course, and not enough Arabic-speaking women instructors elsewhere.
Then came my Eureka! moment. I recalled my brief experience with Hal, the self-driving car (My Self-Driving Car and I; June 21, 2017). Yes, that had ended badly, but at least it showed that car and driver could communicate. And, yes, Hal was engineered so that the human could override the car, whereas, in a teaching situation, the car must be able to override the human.
Still, I figured, it was worth a try. I decided that, given Hal’s temperament, a less volatile personality would be better. Thoughts of Nordic equanimity turned me quickly to Volvo, which jumped at the opportunity.
Volvo officials assured me that their self-driving prototype, Hjalmar (a name that did give me a momentary shiver), could easily be programmed to speak Arabic. Adjustments could be made so that Hjalmar could override the student driver. We all agreed that a self-driving car embodied the very qualities a driving instructor must impart: attentiveness, anticipation, self-control.
My team was convinced, and the Saudi authorities welcomed any arrangement that would eliminate the male/female contact problem. We recruited ten Saudi women to be our test students.
I still worried lest a student get into a standoff with Hjalmar like mine with Hal. I needn’t have fretted. Both sides handled the situation with Nordic, or at least Nordic-like, sang froid, and all ten of the women passed their drivers’ tests on their first try.
In a final evaluation meeting, the Saudis expressed their delight, though they did mention their puzzlement that the trial students now seemed to be speaking Arabic with a noticeable Swedish accent, and four of them had dyed their hair blond.
The Volvo engineers smiled, acknowledging they too had been a bit bemused at the colloquial Arabic vulgarities Hjalmar had picked up, and his tendency to honk his horn even before the red light had turned green. They were certain this could easily be engineered away.
We all agreed it was a shining example of technological inventiveness and cross-cultural cooperation, and we hoisted our water glasses in a rousing toast.