NASCAR and the [UN] Certain Autonomous Future

It is said that the first auto race occurred as soon as the second car was built. This race is recorded to have happened at 4:30am on August 30th, 1867 in England. Who was driving is uncertain as both cars were breaking what was called a red-flag law for self-propelled vehicles. What is certain is that whoever they were, they were most likely the first racing drivers. In the 149 years since then auto racing has become one of the most popular sports in the world, with millions of participants and hundreds of millions of fans. The stars of the sport, race car drivers, are now some of the highest paid athletes in the world. And the sport has survived amidst massive changes in technology, society, and safety standards. Today, it faces what looks to be it’s biggest challenge yet: self-driving cars .

It’s not hard to understand auto racing. Car manufacturers have used it as a marketing tool to prove reliability, speed, and brand loyalty to their customers and potential customers. To do this they have always needed the best drivers, who could pilot the car to its limit and beat the competition. The racing driver has always been integral to the outcome of an auto race. Viewed by the general public to be superhuman connoisseurs of speed (or excellent product salesmen), they race wheel-to-wheel, pitting the balance 0f man and machine on the world stage to prove who is the fastest.

Throughout a race, one factor continually remains with humans driving: there is always the possibility of a human mistake causing a crash. No form of racing has been more adamant in keeping the “human element” a part of the outcome than America’s most popular form of motorsports — NASCAR. It’s why the cars don’t have “pit-speed limiters” and still use four-speed manual transmissions, and the basic mechanicals of the cars have kept the same design for about a million years. NASCAR wants the race to be undertaken — and won — by people, not nuts and bolts.

As for cars built for drivers on the street , a different philosophy is heeded. Over the last 25 years, car manufacturers have continually added technology to help humans and / or remove the need for their intervention entirely. This includes things like traction control, ABS, stability control, intelligent accident avoidance systems, and will include, eventually, fully autonomous systems that permit the car to drive itself.

Cars have entered the sights of America’s greatest innovators and “disrupters” from Silicon Valley, and they are joining forces with America’s best car manufacturers in Detroit to develop the cars — or “transportation forms” — of the future. The future they ENVISION doesn’t involve car ownership, nor any humans at the wheel. Which makes you wonder: in this world, what is the future of auto racing? What happens to NASCAR?

The Pessimist

Naturally, how fast these shifts in consumer tech and philosophy occur will determine their effect on NASCAR and auto racing. The simple fact is that driverless cars are here, and they are only going to increase in numbers. Which means less people will eventually be driving and owning cars. It doesn’t take a debt-ridden degree to see this, and it’s not a pretty picture for a sport built around the selling of the automobile.

The detractors of the sport of auto racing and cars will use this as a fulfillment of their arguments against each. Such as auto racing is dangerous and wasteful, and harmful to the environment. They will claim that cars are vestiges of a dangerous and polluted past, denying mankind the clean air and green future we deserve. There will be graphs with CO2 written on it, and a clear spike towards the top of the graph since 1950. All in an attempt to create their driverless, parking-less, BeaUBER-full future .

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