The rise of the autonomous car

I’ve always found this topic a difficult one to address. On one hand, advancements in technology have enabled cars to achieve extraordinary performance, efficiency and aesthetics. On the other hand, technology is gradually undermining the importance of the driver in operating their vehicles.

Obviously, making driving easier can be a good thing. Consider, for example, a time when drivers needed to manually advance and retard the ignition timing of their engines, using a lever on the steering wheel. Eventually this was automated through mechanical timing systems, and more recently by fully computerised systems that attempt to maximise the efficiency and performance of an engine.  A driving purist could argue that this progress removed an aspect of skill once required for driving. However, you would have trouble finding many people today who lament this improvement.

The same logic could be applied to other advancements: ABS, parking sensors, power steering, and automatic transmission, just to name a few. But as I start to mention some of these other examples, I, along with many of you, realise that I accept and enjoy some of these improvements, while simultaneously rejecting others.

For example, I personally do not like the idea of manually timing my ignition while driving, and I am glad to have a car with power steering as well. But at the same time, I couldn’t imagine owning a car with automatic transmission or driving sensors. Is this a hypocrisy or a double standard on my part?

manual

I..can’t imagine owning a car without manual transmission.

As motoring enthusiasts, how do we determine what technology is good in a car and what is not? And for those of us who wish to see the driver continue to be the most important part of driving, how can we justify and accept any advancements in driving technology when every advancement infringes further on the human component of driving?

I don’t have any clear answers to this, and I struggle in trying to justify my dislike of automatic transmission, while also arguing that power steering is a positive thing. What I suppose concerns me most, particularly in recent years, is the increasing talk about autonomous cars. You don’t have to look very far to see that progress is continually being made. In fact, earlier today/yesterday I posted an article from Wheels.com about one of the first attempts at autonomous racing (a concept for which I don’t really see any point).

driverless-race-cars

Autonomous racing cars being tested recently in Buenos Aires.

Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson recently discussed this issue on DriveTribe, with the three of them agreeing that there will always be a place for the driving enthusiast, even in a world of autonomous cars. While this may be true, I do not find much comfort in this sentiment. Because I can’t help but wonder, if the trend towards autonomous vehicles continues, will driving enthusiasts be marginalised even further? In a world where there is already so much negativity around the driving culture, perhaps driving enthusiasts should be concerned about the ever decreasing role of the ‘average driver’. The continued adoption an acceptance of new technologies can have the unintended side effect of reducing the appreciation of driving skill, disconnecting people from their cars.

Most people are already disconnected from their cars to some extent. A growing proportion of the population does not know how to drive a manual car, and the

clarkson-hammer

Hammers can fix anything, right?

majority of people don’t appear to have any idea how to change their car’s oil or conduct basic routine maintenance. This is likely a symptom of technological improvements making manual transmission appear redundant and making cars so reliable that people feel less need to pay attention to the mechanical health of their car.

And I see this as a significant reason why driving enthusiasts have such a difficult time arguing and lobbying for changes to driving regulations. The community of motoring enthusiasts is simply not large enough to push back against the wave of over-regulation and driving ignorance adopted by mainstream society, and encouraged by the authorities. Any further disconnection of drivers from their cars will surely exacerbate this imbalance and result in even greater marginalisation of driving enthusiasts.

This is an important issue for us to grapple with. Because progress is important, and certainly beneficial to the world of motoring. You just have to look at some of the recent and future new models of cars such as the Rolls Royce Wraith (which has a

82514_2017_rollsroyce_wraith

The new Wraith can automatically adjust its transmission to adapt to the road ahead.

system to automatically identify the topography of the road ahead and adjust the transmission of the car to suit) to appreciate the benefits of what advancements in technology can bring. On the other hand, the 2018 Ford Mustang will come with a pedestrian detection system, lane assist and distance alert to the car in front, which is as though drivers are being taught to not even try to use discretion anymore. We must be mindful of the long-term impacts of such advancements. It would be a shame for technology to deliver us such amazing and exciting cars, just to eventually push us out of the driving seat.

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on this. Is technological progress in cars a good thing? And will the motoring enthusiast be able to follow their passion in a world of autonomous vehicles? Let me know in the comments below.

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