The cover story of this month’s “Wired” magazine is about cars that are essentially driven by robots and the fact that they are moving ever closer to your garage. In fact, Wired says, “Your next car will drive itself.”
That seems unlikely because I personally buy used — generally, substantially used in fact, so I’m probably at least five years behind the curve. Plus we will be needing to replace our 1998 Durango pretty soon methinks, and I’m not expecting self-driving cars to be affordable used cars within that time frame.
It’s pretty obvious that this is eventually going to come our way, however. Some time ago I owned a 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix which was a pretty nice car. To start the car you turned a key and it would start itself; no hand cranking. It would shift gears automatically as you sped up and slowed down. The steering had power assistance so you didn’t have to do all the steering yourself. The brakes did also, plus they also would modulate heavy brake application automatically to avoid skidding. When you would start driving the doors would lock automatically, and the headlights would automatically turn on when it was dark. Cars have been evolving more and more toward full automation so we would surely expect cars that drive themselves within our lifetimes.
It’s got me pretty worried, but not why you think.
I’m really not at all concerned about the cars themselves. I think that there will be accidents, sure. But we already have car accidents, lots of them. It is a rare day when there is NOT an accident between Lehi and Spanish Fork on I-15. The software that runs these cars will not be perfect and sometimes bugs will cause crashes, but I can’t imagine it would be any worse than what we have now. Plus, with a self-driving car it doesn’t matter if you are drunk, high, sleepy, or distracted. I think generally travel will be a lot safer with robotic cars.
What worries me is that I will lose something I love, which is driving. Really good cars are amazing to drive. Not amazing like riding in a fast roller coaster. Driving a really good car is so much more, because it is so engaging. When automakers build a great sports car, they seek a balance between adding just enough aids that it makes the drive enjoyable but still makes you feel connected. So the suspension is firmer so you can feel the road through your hands and your seat, and even tell how well the tires are gripping. The steering assists are not so strong so you get a good feel for the way the car turns. They put a manual transmission next to your right knee so you can control exactly what gear you are in and when you want to shift. Cars like this feel like an extension of your own brain. My Grand Prix was a very nice car and I enjoyed it for years, but it was not fun to drive like my 350Z or even my CRX was.
Self-driving cars are going to take the engagement out of driving. Going to work in a self-driving car will be no more enjoyable than riding in a taxi. And for many people that is probably fine for them. I realize not everyone enjoys driving. Being free to enjoy the sights or read e-mail on your iPhone might be much more fulfilling for most people. But for those of us who like to drive, we’ll feel like a part of us is missing.
You might be thinking, well, if you like driving so much, why not just keep a normal car and you can drive it? Self-driving cars and regular cars will coexist for a while, but eventually cars driven by humans will all but disappear. When cars were first invented, they shared the roads with horse-drawn buggies and wagons. Today you hardly ever see a horse-drawn wagon on the street, and on many streets it is illegal. The prevalence of cars on such streets, and the reliance they have on the expectation that all the other vehicles on that street are regular cars, makes it unsafe to use a horse and buggy there. Eventually, once self-driven cars become mainstream, I suspect we will see the same thing happen to regular cars. Imagine a freeway full of self-driven cars all traveling at 100 mph with follow distances of only a half second or less. Computers could probably manage this quite easily, but there is no way a normal human driver could safely drive in that environment.
I also expect that because of the disparity in safety between regular cars and the much-safer self-driven cars, anyone who wishes to own a regular car will be paying much higher insurance costs for the privilege of driving it in the places where that is allowed. We may come to the point where really all you can do with your normal car is put it in a trailer, tow it to a race track behind your self-driven truck, and then drive your car at the track.
So, I see a future where something I love is basically gone from me forever. It’s kinda sad to think of, yet it implies a safer future for my children, which is a good thing. But for me, well, I guess what it means is I’d better figure out how to get that Ferrari before it is too late.