Will Autonomous Tech Make Us All Orwellian Driving Dullards?
One by one, feature by feature, control by control, we are losing authority and direct influence over the vehicles we drive. The last time I looked, “drive” was a verb, not a passive, unengaged blob of an adjective. Yes, we have 600-hp, street-legal monsters and sports cars capable of cornering forces equal to some IMSA prototypes of 30 years ago, but it is all for naught if the instructions from our fingertips to the tire contact patches must overcome the inertia of a billion lines of electronic code. “Right of Way” is a weekly opinion column from automotive journalist, recovering racer and guitarist Jim Resnick. Worst among the authority-robbing cancers on driving prescience is autonomous driving technology—I shall call it “automaton driving”—that many automakers are slowly pouring it into their cars like Orwellian Kool-Aid. Not because it dulls the automotive senses, but because it dulls the driver. RELATED: New Self Driving Audi is Even Better Than The Last One
Now that we have advanced technology and systems integration required to yield automaton driving where steering, braking, speed regulation and lane changing can all be accomplished with nanny-like security, the unrelenting urge to apply it is overwhelming and not just overwhelming to car companies, but to governments. We’re witnessing the dumbing down of the driving experience.
Real-time response to stupid or sleepy driver waywardness will no doubt save many people’s bacon. While this might interfere in a Darwinist wave of natural selection among inattentive drivers, saving their bacon is a good thing. But how far down that automaton road will we go before people forget entirely how to be engaged with the driving experience? Before we lose the necessary depth perception and predictive brainpower needed to negotiate the freeway and the twisty back road? Before we forget how to heel-and-toe? Counter-steer? Driving is not always a chore. Compared to other developed Western countries, isn’t driver education in America already enough of a bad joke?
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The bitter pill that those of us who enjoy rowing our own gears must swallow is also made more bitter: modern automatics with torque converters and clutch-less manuals are indeed more efficient in all the EPA cycle tests. A full, traditional manual also leaves an open variable in real-world fuel economy and emissions output. A pre-programmed transmission can be relied upon to err on the side of greater compliance for far more of a car’s duty cycle than a transmission that leaves the shifting to the driver. Modern clutch-less manuals and automatics are often quicker, too, but that misses the main point of driving fun.
For me, and I suspect for many of my automotive enthusiast friends, mechanical sympathy is the key in a sporty car and that does not mean better numbers or outright performance. Performance numbers are merely…numeric. They don’t create driving enjoyment, fulfillment, mechanical sympathy or spark. In this automotive pseudo-utopia, which the industry has progressively gotten away from, the driver makes the major dynamic decisions, not a computer, not a valve or actuator, not a virtual Ross Brawn or Ralph Nader or mother-in-law pulling virtual levers by remote control. Yet, all of us who feel this way have to acknowledge that we're in the minority. Fewer people give a damn. Traffic congestion, an unavoidable purchase influence, sucks the life out of everyone.
An enthusiast (and a brand) must remain faithful to their own Magna Carta and some brands ascended in large measure to this mechanical sympathy. Sure, manuals are still available in some BMWs, for example, a brand that still uses “Ultimate Driving Machine” now and then. But they ought to either think twice about it or refocus on that mantra written so brilliantly in 1975 by Martin Puris, then head of the small Ammirati & Puris advertising firm BMW hired in 1975. But between the numb steering, the multiple stages of cam effect for electronic throttles, synthetic tone generators wired to speakers belching engine-like noises to cabins and the general button gymnastics required to responsive-ize the car to classic 2002 or even ’90s M3 levels, there’s way too much foreplay. Some other brands that lean sporty are similarly afflicted.
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My friends and I prefer a oneness between horse and rider. We don’t care if it is 3 percent less efficient. We prefer to be cognizant of all that goes on at the tarmac, at the inlet manifold, at the exhaust port, at the throw-out bearing, at the synchro ring and the helical gear.
After all, the first syllable of cognition is cog.
Jim Resnick started his career writing and photographing for Vette, Car Craft and Chevy High Performance magazines. He then launched the BMW-focused Bimmer as Editor-in-Chief, while also holding down the Tech Editor chair at Sports Car International. Jim was then drafted into PR and Marketing roles with Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Jaguar Land Rover and ran Communications for Fender Musical Instrument Corporation, bringing a unique perspective to reporting. He’s also a recovering racer and guitarist.