In the COAL article of my 2017 Ford Fusion Titanium, I heaped praise upon the various driving assist technologies in this car, including all-speed adaptive cruise control, lane departure assist, and collision warning/auto braking. Many commenters were skeptical of such technologies, whether it was for reasons of cost and complexity, or for diminishing the driver experience. I originally started drafting this as a followup comment, but it got so long that I decided to make an entire post about it.
Regardless of how you feel about the advancement of Autonomous cars, there is no denying their inevitable rise. I for one view this as a good thing, and hopefully by the end of this piece you will too.
First of all, when we talk about transportation vs. driving, we are really talking about two different things. The vast majority of drivers on the road aren’t doing so for the sheer pleasure of driving: They drive because it is the most expedient form of transportation. Substitute driving with an equally convenient form of transport, and many drivers would happily become passengers, as illustrated by the rise of Uber and Lyft.
As a result, many of these reluctant drivers out on the road today are not very good at driving. They don’t have the innate desire to excel at their craft that we afficiandos have. They do their driving impaired by alcohol, distracted by their phone, and deprived of sleep. These are the people who would be far better served by self-driving cars.
And this gets to the very heart of my argument. Will our driving experience be diminished once we remove all these unwilling drivers from the road? Hardly. Once the disinterested and disaffected mobility seekers are safely ensconced in their self driving cocoons, things will improve immeasurably for those of us who choose to pilot our own vehicles. It is kind of like the difference between high school and college: The former everyone has to go to, the latter is voluntary. Once you get rid of the people who don’t want to be there, the end result is a better experience for those who do.
I will be the first to admit that there are times I want to drive, and times I want to be driven. When I was working for JC Whitney, I regularly took the train to my office just outside the Loop in downtown Chicago. As a lifetime car commuter, this experience was eye opening. I could actually take this otherwise non productive time, and use it to read, catch up on my emails, watch a video, or even catch a few winks.
Does not wanting for fight rush hour traffic make me any less of a driving enthusiast? I for one don’t think so. Comparing rush hour traffic to driving is like comparing standing in line to a jog in the park: They both involve using your feet, but that is about it. Indeed, I don’t consider commuting by car to even be proper “driving.”
Which brings me to my other point: Self driving technology won’t make my SLK or Mark III obsolete, any more than it will render any of your current cars obsolete. What it will do is let you truly enjoy the time you want to spend behind the wheel. I drive about 20,000 miles per year, about 15,000 of which is pure commuting. Handing that 15,000 miles off to Waymo does not in any way diminish the road trips in the Mark III, nor does it make ambling around the back roads of Amish country in the SLK any less enjoyable.
If I may employ one final crude analogy: I know lots of people who enjoy weekend camping trips, but I can’t think of any who would give up their bed and central air forever. I think that automobile driving will become like camping, something that was once done out of necessity, but now done for pleasure.
My main point is that self-driving cars and automotive enthusiasm do not have to be either-or propositions. To me, they can live side-by-side an ultimately enhance each other.