Over the past week several stories have caught my attention about the future of driving.
As this article is written, an Audi SUV – modified by OEM supplier Delphi – is working its way across the country from San Francisco to New York with the person in the driver’s seat only there for the ride. That’s right, this two-ton automobile is traveling on public roads from coast-to-coast with no one at the proverbial wheel (although the driver can intervene during an emergency). At the same time as the autonomous Audi was crossing the Bay Bridge heading east, just underneath the span in Alameda, a self-driving Mercedes-Benz was negotiating a complex circuit with obstacles, cones and pretend pedestrians with no one controlling the process.
Just days before the Delphi-Audi departed on its epic journey, Tesla founder and tech visionary Elon Musk garnered significant media attention over his comments about the future of the car. Musk said, “[I]n the distant future, I think people may outlaw driving cars because its too dangerous. You can’t have a person driving a 2-ton death machine.” Although Musk later backtracked a bit by stating that he was in favor of people being allowed to drive their cars for as long as they wanted, his comments made clear that self-driving cars are a matter of when and not if.
Is autonomous driving here to stay? Do we have to trade in our Healeys, Triumphs and MGs in for an egg shaped Google mobile? Not likely, but we may have no one to sell them to after we’re no longer able to get in and out of them.
What of the third story? Well, that hits a little closer to home when I read results from a survey that said that the overwhelming majority of Americans under the age of 40 considered the car to be nothing more than an appliance, not far removed from the toaster, microwave oven and electric hair dryer. If the survey is valid (as it undoubtedly is) what does that say for the future of our hobby? Where will future generations of car enthusiasts come from and will they see automobiles in the same way that we (I mean those of us that love cars in all shapes and sizes) do now?
I have gone on the record many times that I view the automobile as something much more than a conveyance to get from one place to another. Like Don Draper discussing the Kodak Carousel, I consider cars (especially LBCs like ours) as the ultimate time machines; able to transport us back to a certain time and place in the past, connecting us with our parents, friends and younger selves.
Is Musk right that driving cars is dangerous? Of course he is. In fact, driving on the road will likely be the most dangerous thing that most of us do over a lifetime. Is that a reason to outlaw the practice? Not necessarily. I would be much happier, however, if the bar was raised for driver education and that drivers had a better sense of how dangerous the act of driving is. A friend made an interesting comment that his Grandmother had never driven a car and that it’s likely that his great grandchildren never will either. If so, maybe we’ll become the next generation of cavalry men who saw their mounts disappear in favor of new technology. Perhaps we’ll have to drive on specially set aside roads or tracks to indulge in some fast driving with only our own eyes and brains to rely on for our decision making. Somehow, I think that there will always be a place for the car and driver as we know it. City streets, neighborhoods with plenty of kids and country roads on sunny days.
Thankfully, for those of us that grew up driving small British cars we understand the simple rules of physics and maintain a careful eye around us for the dangers posed by 3-ton SUVs and inattentive drivers. It may be many years (and even beyond our lifetimes) before we see mandatory self-driving cars but it may just be a few years before this hobby is populated mainly by those over 40 (it likely is already) since younger enthusiasts may fail to see the point of tinkering over an appliance as a form of enjoyment.
Can we stop self-driving cars? Should we? I’m not sure, but the best thing that we can do is to go out and enjoy our cars safely and show younger generations that these vehicles are so much more than cousins of the toaster and washing machine. They are some of the few tangible links we have to the past and our best shot at remembering that past in the future.
By Johnny Oversteer