Open Road

All hail the autonomous vehicle! Not just yet...

Will The Arrival Of The Self-Driving Auto Kill Off The Enthusiast?

With the promise of self-driving technology around the corner and the car-media sensation that is Tesla, I jumped into the latest and greatest offer from Silicon Valley and leased a Tesla Model S. Part of the fascination of this vehicle was the promise of its auto driving technologies. Most manufacturers have some version of radar cruise control, but to have the vehicle actually steer itself was beyond intriguing. After the OTA version upgrade I jumped into the self-driving Model S and took off for the greater LA area.

The first time you relinquish control of driving duties is quite eerie. As I sat in the driver's seat I took me a few moments to realize that I wasn't really driving. The first several miles I was actually in awe at the accuracy of the driving quality and the precision of the vehicle. It was a little hard to fathom that I would ever let a CPU take over driving duties during my lifetime.

So now that I've done this science experiment more than a couple of times, I can't help but chuckle every time Autopilot takes over as I grab my cell phone. But I think the fascination has worn off. Growing up I was obsessed with getting behind the wheel of a Nissan 300Z, the Acura NSX, or even a Honda Accord. I enjoyed the drive. I enjoyed changing gears, swerving through freeway traffic, listening to the exhaust of my '85 Honda Civic DX as it buzzed through traffic. There was definitely a connection made once you put your hands on the wheel. What I noticed is that while the "coolness" of autonomous driving is inevitable, it does lead to some degree of disconnect between driver and machine. And as an enthusiast, I don't think I'm quite ready for that.

Recently Porsche CEO Oliver Blume commented that his company produces products that are made to be driven – by humans. I'm rather impressed with these recent comments. Frankly, cars are designed to be driven and enjoyed. Driving remains a skill and many of us who sit behind the wheel are still passionate about driving and what we drive. Automotive legends including Porsche, Ferrari, and Lamborghini beg to be driven. I would imagine there are only a handful of people who would purchase a supercar and let a CPU take over driving duties. The years of engineering and design that go into developing a product that can attempt to translate human emotion to four wheels will, in my opinion, go under-appreciated with the arrival of autonomous driving.

In an era where automotive technology is fast-forwarding leaps and bounds, almost every automaker is leaving a fortune on the table if they do not engage in some sort of autonomous driving capabilities in their model offerings. I'm not blind in acknowledging that automotive technologies offer a plethora of advantages. Lower automotive fatalities by removing humans from the equation, offering independence to those with disabilities, and increasing fuel efficiency and lowering carbon emissions with more efficient driving. But what will happen to human input? Will car manufactures put out certain models just for the purpose of human enjoyment? Will autonomous driving become a standard button we push, similar to turning on the air conditioner?

Don't get me wrong – there are more than enough times when I wish I could have activated autonomous driving features in the past. But am I ready to let go and embrace an all-electric, self-driving utopia? Not quite. And if you're wondering what happened to that Tesla Model S – I passed that over to my wife. I decided to regain a bit of my own driving autonomy by getting behind the wheel of a BMW X5 M and bringing some driving joy back into my life.

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