I once had a very rich friend who would send his Rolls-Royce to pick me up when it was time to socialize. Entombed in the near-silent, leather-lined passenger compartment of the legendary British machine, I learned what driving is like for the 1 per cent: They don't drive. Instead, they're transported.
Up front, separated from me by a thick pane of bevelled glass, was a silver-haired chauffeur in a freshly pressed uniform. Unencumbered by plebeian matters like steering, braking and watching the road, I was free to do whatever I liked – read a magazine, pour myself a shot of Chivas Regal from the burledoak bar, even fall asleep.
As a dyed-in-the-wool car guy, I wasn't sure I liked giving up control, but it was a moot point anyway – a chauffeur is the most expensive car accessory you can get. Unless I landed a pro sports contract or won the Powerball lottery, I knew that I would be doing my own driving for the rest of my days.
Or will I? These days, digital technology is bringing chauffeuring to the masses in the form of the robot car. In less than 10 years, you will be able to buy a car that drives all by itself. In fact, the technology already exists – if it weren't for legal issues, the age of the digital chauffeur would already be upon us.
A ride in a car like the new Mercedes S550 shows the trajectory of automotive technology: With Distronic Plus cruise control, automatic braking and Lane Assist, you can put yourself in the hands of the digital gods – just let go of the wheel, take your feet off the pedals and the car magically guides itself. It's spooky, but it really works: The cruise control monitors traffic with radar sensors, braking and accelerating as required. Lane sensors track the contours of the road and the steering wheel moves on its own, as if it were in the grip of a ghost.
You need to have faith. If an obstacle suddenly appears, the car will react more quickly than you could, braking at the optimum rate to avoid a collision (if things get bad, it will tension the seat belts, prepare the airbags for deployment or even call emergency services on your behalf).
For now, you can sample computerized chauffeur services only in short doses – for legal reasons, the S-Class will only allow you to take your hands off the wheel for 10 seconds at a time. And if you don't take control again, the car will automatically apply the brakes.
Despite the temporary limitations, the digital chauffeur is now inevitable. Currently, every major carmaker is exploring the technology that will eventually render human drivers obsolete. Nissan has announced that it will have self-driving cars ready for sale by 2020. BMW is working with Continental to develop cars "capable of highly automated operation on motorways."
Tesla, the electric-car company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, is holding discussions with Google, which has already produced a series of robot cars that navigate the streets of California without human assistance.
Although enthusiasts initially decried digital systems as unnecessary nanny-state intrusions that would ruin the pleasure of driving, software is now a key component of every highperformance vehicle, adding nuance, sophistication and control. If you go into a corner too fast in your new Porsche or Ferrari, electronic legions are instantly brought in to help you, feathering the throttle, applying the brakes in a strategic sequence and magically stiffening the engine mounts to limit weight shift.
If you grew up in the analog age, it all seems incredible. But for a generation raised on digital technology, the software chauffeur is just one more step in a process that can be traced back to the days when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were out in their garages, soldering wires and writing code.
A few years ago, I visited a group of student engineers who were designing robot cars. In labs filled with microchips, digital image sensors and whirring servomotors, they spent their days tapping out strings of instructions that taught their machines to recognize shapes and patterns, such as the edge of a highway, falling snow or a small child stepping off a curb.
Not long afterward, I experienced robot car technology firsthand as I drove down a road in Georgia in a new Toyota Prius, one of the most software-intensive cars ever brought to market. Without warning, the Prius slammed on its brakes and tightened the seat belts. I soon saw why – on the road ahead was a raised steel plate that would have done some serious damage. Camouflaged with construction dust, the plate was virtually invisible, yet the Prius's radar sensors had picked it up as a potential hazard.
This experience left me impressed and curious, and I later tested similar systems offered by Volvo and Mercedes by setting up a human mannequin in a parking lot, then driving toward it at high speed. (The cars spotted the mannequin every time.)
The rise of the digital chauffeur is being hastened by the high-end car market's endless demand for comfort and security. In the luxury class, software assist is virtually standard, with features like blind-spot alert cameras, automatic headlight controls and driver monitoring systems that can tell whether you're falling asleep.
The new Mercedes S-Class is typical of the breed, with multiple radar systems and cameras that watch the world around the car, feeding the information to banks of microchips. The age of the digital chauffeur is almost here – you just can't sit in the back yet. But very soon, you will.