Brave New World?

Technology can take more and more tasks out of our hands. But do we want it to do that?

In the race to develop autonomous vehicles, evolutionary advancements aren’t news. News breaks when a self-driving taxi with a distracted “driver” behind the wheel strikes and kills a pedestrian. Or when Volkswagen smashes the Pikes Peak outright record with its all-electric I.D R. It takes huge leaps to make news, these days.

Reality is that autonomous cars will remove the tedium from of the daily commute. Already, many of us rely on the first level of autonomy, adaptive cruise control, in stop-and-go traffic. Radar and lidar can measure the distance to the car in front and adjust road speed without any driver input. Lane keeping assist takes care of the steering, though legally you still need a hand on the wheel, at least for now, and collision mitigation braking lessens the possibility of a crash. Soon, entire convoys with AI-driven autonomy will be able to travel bumper-to-bumper at high speed, and we’ll be able to sit there and catch up with the latest TV series instead of driving– or so the visionaries tell us.

But companies like Ferrari, Bentley, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Maserati and more all depend on our irrational urge to hold the steering wheel and floor the throttle. When a driver’s cockpit becomes a passive pod to travel in, will these brands still retain their appeal? Undoubtedly designers and engineers at major auto companies are holding passionate discussions on that topic right now. You can be sure I.D.R. driver Romain Dumas wasn’t checking his Facebook posts during the 7 minutes and 57 seconds of his record-setting run up Pikes Peak.

Despite vocal dissent from true driving enthusiasts, every major car manufacturer, ride-sharing service and tech company has bought into the driverless car industry. Autonomous driving could reduce road accidents to the level we already expect of air or rail travel.

But is automotive technology outpacing our desires? Full autonomy frightens the professional drivers of vans, trucks, buses and taxis. And it might not be what those who love driving want, either. Driving has a visceral appeal that’s deep within us. That’s not news to anyone.