Bring on the Autonomous Cars (But Don’t Forget the Steering Wheel!)



As a car guy, I am cautiously optimistic about the upcoming reality of autonomous cars. I have spent a considerable amount of time reading and pondering this huge leap in automotive technology, but I worry what this means for the experience of driving.

First, what are “autonomous cars” anyways? Autonomous cars are vehicles that can drive themselves without any human input. It’s very simple: you get in the car and punch in your destination, and the vehicle will drive itself (and yes, you of course) to the programmed destination. With autonomous vehicles, passengers can take a nap, watch a video, or have lunch, all the while the car is driving itself.

We are starting to see the beginnings of this technology being rolled out to the public. For the past ten years or so, car manufacturers like Toyota and Ford have been offering self parking systems. Now, we are seeing new companies like Tesla and Google introducing their own vehicles, touting a total package of self driving capabilities. Even good old General Motors just bought a technology company called Cruise Automation which has expertise in driverless cars.

I understand the potential benefits of driverless cars. In theory, there should be fewer accidents, less injuries, and an overall smaller fatality rate. It’s also no secret that 90% of automotive accidents are caused by human error. Traffic will move faster and smoother with systems linked into cars, meaning less congestion and less pollution in cities. We might even see greater economic productivity as a result; instead of having commuters waste their time driving, they can actually be working during the commute to and from work.

It all sounds great, and I also hate wasting my time sitting in traffic. That being said, I really enjoy driving. Most of the time at least. For most North American kids born before 1995, we couldn’t wait to get our driver’s licenses.  Driving used to be, and still should be, a passion point for people.

Driving to me equals freedom! There’s nothing the like feeling of being able to go where I want, when I want, how fast I want (within the legal limits) and by myself. How can one not experience pure enjoyment in the open road on a beautiful day, driving a car with the stereo blaring and the windows down. And I understand everyday driving is certainly not like this, but when these days happen, it is very sweet.

So what am I concerned about? I don’t want cars to become an appliance. If we are never really driving our cars, then cars really become no different than our refrigerators or washing machines. When you buy a BMW, one of the reasons you are buying it instead of, say, a $12,000 Hyundai Accent, is the driving experience. Although the BMW should look nicer and be built with better materials, it is the driving experience that is supposed to truly differentiate the car. If we are never driving our cars, then what difference does any of this make?

I am in favour of progress, technological advancements, and hopefully saving lives, but cars are extremely important to a lot of people, and driving is one the few legal thrills we all have. So bring on the autonomous cars, but there better be an off button and a steering wheel so I can also drive myself.