A couple months ago in EVO Magazine, founding editor and professional fast-car driver Dickie Meaden posted an editorial asking the question: Who asked for Autonomous cars?. In it, he lays out the classic car-enthusiast position that self-driving cars are an answer to a question nobody’s asking, and that we’ll have to pry the steering wheel out of his cold, dead hands, thankyouverymuch. But increasingly it seems that car journalists, passing their weeks powersliding supercars around test tracks and welcoming top-spec press cars in their driveway, are losing touch with how average people use a car. The pace of technological innovation is only emphasizing the disconnect.
You see, the answer to “Who asked for autonomous cars?” is “All of us.”. While I love driving as much as any self-respecting petrolhead, the reality is that in 2017, most of the time we spend in a car is no fun at all. Whether it’s a long commute, a manic sprint to the airport, or a traffic-filled slog across Germany in search of sunny southern climes, very few drivers have the privilege of enjoying their car anymore. Even Dickie himself admits to sometimes “wishing I could get in, fall asleep and wake up at my destination”. And that’s the point: even if you love driving, wouldn’t it be great to do sometimes do that? Wouldn’t it be great if some of the terrible drivers around you could also do that, instead of risking your life by shaving or texting or spilling hot coffee on the way to the office? Doesn’t it sound nice to have a cosy, automated pod pick you up at Heathrow after that all-night flight from China, navigating a clogged and rainy M25 while you slowly come to grips with being 10 time zones away from your brain? And what about those who can’t drive — or who can’t afford a car?
For generations now, cars have become more of a need than a pleasure. For many families, owning a car is a necessary but massive expense. Especially the US, where public transportation infrastructure can be abysmal, people need cars to get to the places where work is available, but they are so expensive to buy, maintain and park that the benefits can be negligible. There is no joy in that. We also have a rapidly ageing population across developed world that is increasingly marginalized by a lack of mobility. The potential for shared or hailed self-driving cars to quell some of modern society’s inequality is huge.
Even if you don’t believe autonomous cars will save the world, you simply cannot deny the potential for increased driver safety. Just because the number of traffic fatalities continues to fall in Europe doesn’t mean that cars can’t still be safer. While it is true that cars themselves have never protected passengers better, in the US — where driver training is poor, attention worse, and miles travelled high — the sad reality is that 37,461 Americans died in traffic-related accidents last year (according to recently-released data from NHTSA), and approximately 8000 of those deaths were of people under 25 years old. A staggering 28% of fatal accidents were related to alcohol use, and drivers 65 and older were involved in 20% more fatal crashes than 10 years ago. These numbers have risen in the past 3 years, giving 2016 the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2008. That’s 3-4 times more per 100,000 people (and double per miles driven) than in Western Europe last year. This is terrible truth about driving in America and many other countries around the world, and something I think we should all be striving to fix.
Autonomous cars, or more accurately, the advanced driver-assistance systems that AVs will be built on, could reduce those numbers significantly. So it’s not surprising that American companies are driving this conversation and advancing the autonomous technologies with more urgency than their European counterparts. It is, without a doubt, a much bigger problem there. But the reality is that around the world, we’re all becoming worse drivers. Distracted driving from smartphones and other devices isn’t about to go away, and the traffic and infrastructure problems are only increasing. While it’s true that driving is a skill that needs to be practiced; so are cooking, carpentry, sewing, or many other previously “necessary” skills that have largely gone by the wayside in favor of busy lives and “progress”.
But beyond the marginalized and the inattentive, there’s another group of drivers who should be welcoming autonomous driving with open arms: the enthusiasts. The drivers who hated automatic transmissions but now specify them 95 percent of the time – even on high-performance cars. The drivers who complain about every new technology only to adopt it and then realize just how dangerous that old car ”really was”. It’s these “haters who love to drive” that may get the most out of an autonomous future.
As high-performance cars gain power and capability, they become increasingly harder to control at the limit of their performance envelope; in other words, you have to drive really fast to get the most out of them. Which can be dangerous — not to mention illegal — on most public roads. Autonomous systems offer the possibility of near supernatural “driving abilities” (read Alex Roy’s excellent description of augmented driving here), but also a sort of sixth sense for understand driving conditions and situations that would have previously been “invisible” to them. Both would allow more freedom to drive harder on public roads with less risk to yourself and others. Widespread adoption of autonomous cars would also mean that those around you are more predictable, better drivers, so you can actually enjoy yourself with less risk of the unexpected. While self-driving cars might initially sound terrible to many car enthusiasts, so does getting t-boned by a distracted driver or crashing your pride and joy through a fence because of an unexpected sheep in the road. That’s why active safety systems have become ubiquitous on modern sports cars, and self-driving technology is simply the natural next step.
Finding the right balance is the challenge manufacturers need to solve. But in 10 to 15 years, there’s no reason Porsche, Aston Martin or Lamborghini couldn’t offer the best AV system out there. One capable of relieving a driver of the tedium of in-town traffic or the paralyzing fear of a crowded parking structure. But also offering, as Mr. Meaden says, “the freedom to drive where I wish, when I wish, as fast or as slowly as I wish”. Ironically, it’s the drivers who love their cars the most who may have the most to gain from autonomous technology.
So who asked for autonomous cars? The bored commuter did. The lonely grandmother whose doctor is 25 kilometers away did. The parents of all those teenagers killed in car crashes did. And, without even realizing it, even Dickie Meaden did. It’s important that all of these sides are represented at the table when developing autonomous cars, and that enthusiasts don’t simply reject outright what might be the saviour of the thing they love most. Now is the time that we can help manufacturers explore and understand where to take the technology that is inevitably on its way. So let’s look ahead and focus on designing self-driving cars that help us all enjoy the drive a bit more, however we wish to do it.
Drew Meehan is the Founder and Principal at Mensen, a car-design consultancy that specializes in improving the experience of next-generation cars for the people that use them. Find out more at mensenauto.com