Will a Road Trip in an Autonomous Car be a True Road Trip?
Driving—or rather, riding—is about to change forever. The robot army is being cloned as we speak, ready to shuffle us to work while we peck away on our laptops, take our kids to soccer without complaint, and cart our fully-baked butts home from the bar at two in the morning. We must welcome our new mechanized chauffeurs with open arms, for they’ll do everything so much better than we ever could. Safety will be off the charts. Traffic will be a smooth, steady stream. Parallel parking will no longer be funny.
But what, everyone in these Tribes will ask, about driving itself—the actual physical act of controlling a car through time and space? It’s what we relish, what we crave. We feel drawn to the road with the same pull that gravity exerts on our springs. We don’t go for drives to be driven. We go for drives to feel the precise tension between wheel and tire, the remarkable sensitivity of brake and throttle, and the sympathetic resonance between the machine and the physics that controls it. All of those things are telegraphed to us through our hands, feet, butt, and back, with not a millisecond of delay. It’s one of the rare time in our lives when our commands are followed as we think them, without question. We are partners with the machines, not cargo. Can a robot ever give us that satisfaction? Not a chance.
But autonomous cars are on the way. Manufacturers say the ability will be here as soon as 2018 or 2020. That's a nice sentiment, but wildly optimistic. We're still several years off from true Level 4 (fully hands-off) autonomy, mostly due to regulatory roadblocks that will necessarily slow the process and a billion little bugs that need to be swatted out of the technology. The capability will arrive in stages, as it’s already begun, and one day we’ll find ourselves with the ability to engage fully autonomous driving with a glance, or a thought.
That will be fine for commuting—I sure as hell hate inching forward for 45 endless minutes, or driving down the road at the mercy of heavily distracted drivers—and it will be pointless for recreational driving. We won’t want to sit there and “watch” our 911 tear up the twisties on our behalf. We’ll want to do it ourselves. That will never fade. (Btw, no, I don’t think human-driven cars will become extinct. There may be locations and times when autonomy is required, but for the most part I suspect we’ll retain discretion in the matter.) But what about the purpose of this Tribe—the road trip, the exploration, and the days-long cross-country adventures? Will a road trip still be a true road trip if we flip on the auto-butler every time we get bored, or want to scroll through Twitter, only re-engaging during half-mile spurts through a few challenging esses?
No, it won’t. When you go on a long drive, you take ownership of the entire thing. That’s the challenge—keeping your edge, powering through, queuing up the right tracks that sync up beautifully with long stretches of desert highway or Alpine ascents, letting your brain turn ideas over while your body stays on task. When your car does all the work while you doze, goof off on your phone, or stare out the window, you lose what it’s all about. Sure, if fatigue sets yet you have to keep going, or if the landscape is so captivating you have to soak it in, engage the machine. Otherwise, do your job, and reap the psychological and physical rewards of honing a true physical skill. Be a driver, not a rider.