To some, it must feel like a coming apocalypse. While the rise of autonomous and semi-autonomous driving promises a future that's both safer and more convenient, it also presages a relinquishing of control. Are we giving up the joy of driving for even more time spent staring at our smartphones?
However, talk to gearheads and you'll find that, surprisingly, few seem worried about having their steering wheels confiscated. On the contrary, forward-looking car enthusiasts view the coming advances in much the same way they see safety aids such as traction control or anti-lock brakes.
"We'll essentially be creating a hive-minded, multi-cellular mass transit system and removing some of the frail human wetware that leads to crashes," Top Gear's Tom Ford says. "But I don't think we'll see the death of the 'driver's car' – they may become more niche, but there will always be a market for self-regulated driving."
Catching up with Ford isn't easy. I track him down en route from Dubai to Inuvik. He's done everything from driving a factory-spec Mazda MX-5 top-down along the Alaskan pipeline to blasting a McLaren through the shifting dunes of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula; for him, driving represents both freedom and adventure. Even so, Ford is optimistic about what a fully autonomous car would mean.
"Would I use a fully autonomous vehicle? Hell, yes. I'd treat it like a private train or a bus. Transit isn't always about the driving experience. Sometimes it's about getting where you need to go quickly and efficiently and in a manner that means you can do stuff on the way."
Road & Track deputy online editor Bob Sorokanich is also ebullient about the state of the motor car.
"We're living in the greatest era of driving excitement that mankind has ever seen," he says. "Today's cars are faster, quicker, grippier, more efficient and safer than ever before. I also think the average driver gets more enjoyment out of driving than we, the enthusiasts, give them credit for, and that decoupling driving from the drudgery of getting to work will enable more people to explore their nascent love of driving."
While most of the Road & Track crew seems to spend every free moment racing at the club level or seeking out some forgotten, serpentine back road, its online offices are based in New York. That means Sorokanich has a clear-eyed view of the pressures of modern traffic.
"Most of my driving is either gridlock traffic or a long highway commute to get away from the gridlock. If I had access to a fully-autonomous vehicle, I would probably end up using a car more than I do now. It would couple the convenience of public transport with the privacy and space of a personal vehicle, which sounds like the ideal commute or errand-running conveyance."
Notorious cross-country driver Alex Roy is even more emphatic about how he'd embrace the autonomous future. Also a New Yorker, he's gone coast-to-coast setting records in everything from an E39 BMW M5, to his Morgan Three-Wheeler, to a Tesla Model S using its Autopilot semi-autonomous modes.
"I leave all aids on. If it's a Tesla, I use Autopilot as much as possible. I would use [autonomy] everywhere but on country roads on Sunday mornings, or on vacation if conditions were ideal."
He adds, bluntly, "Most driving sucks."
Roy's occasional sparring partner is Edward Neidermeyer, his co-host on an autonomous-vehicle-focused podcast called Autonocast who has previously criticized Tesla for its rollout of the Autopilot suite of semi-autonomous features. He lives in Oregon, where he has a BMW M-Coupe, the kind of quirky machine you'd expect from a long-time gearhead. He's more cautious about the short-term future of semi-autonomy.
"Until the advent of full autonomy, we find ourselves in a somewhat dangerous moment where autonomy has become a shiny new thing to market, which incentivizes companies to add features that make a car seem more autonomous," Neidermeyer says. "A lot of electronic driving assists [traction, stability control, emergency auto-brake/brake assist] are generally quite well executed, providing additional safety without being intrusive in the driving experience.
"Rather than trying to convince the driver that their car is autonomous [at any level], auto makers should continue to follow this paradigm of unobtrusive assist systems that solve the shortcomings human drivers face without reducing their sense of responsibility for safe and engaged driving."
However, Niedermeyer also says that full autonomy and car-sharing will allow for the ownership of more specialized cars. If you can call up a shared autonomous pod any time you need for commuting, there will be room for, say, an impractical Lotus Elise for the weekend.
Further, semi-autonomous vehicles are already improving the lives of those who drive cars that are decades removed from autonomy. A classic car can be a relatively dangerous prospect in traffic, as it's not equipped with modern safety features. Driving defensively isn't a foolproof solution against getting hit in an intersection.
However, as modern cars become more capable of automatic braking, that classic 911 becomes safer to take out on the street. There's more, too: with active safety systems making for cars that essentially can't be crashed, designers might be able to look at lowering curb weights and create styling based on beauty, not crumple zones.
We're not there yet. All of our interviewees had unkind things to say about most lane-keeping systems (Ford: "If a passenger kept nudging my steering wheel, I'd punch them."), and all mentioned overcomplexity in most mass-market applications. Simplicity and ease-of-use may make the eventual difference.
However, all four agreed that the future holds great things, both for new, emotional-to-drive cars, for the preservation of classics and for an end to the toil of the commute. Autonomy doesn't have to mean an apocalypse for driving enthusiasts; it might just herald a coming utopia.
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