Driverless car breakthroughs continue to make up a sizable percentage of news headlines relating to the automotive and technology sectors. With car giants like Audi, Mercedes, Tesla and Volvo, along with technology firms like Apple and Google, making major achievements along the road to autonomy - what does this mean for ‘driving for pleasure’?
Why might autonomy be a good thing?
The benefits often assigned to self-driving cars include fewer traffic jams, the potential for zero driving-related deaths and very few accidents, enhanced mobility for the elderly, more efficient use of roads and infrastructures, reduced delivery costs, less pollution, plus the liberation of time currently spent wasted in congestion queues. Images abound of people sitting in autonomous cars reading magazines, working on their tablets or catching forty winks.
One major concern over self-driving cars becoming a reality, though, is that they will take the fun out of driving. People may stop giving their cars names and appetite for sports cars may fizzle out. How likely is it that driving, which many humans enjoy once out on the open road, will become a memory of times past?
It depends what is meant by self-driving
There are six levels of autonomy, including Level 0 meaning no automation at all. Driver assistance systems such as radar cruise control have been around for several years, now, and fall into Level 1, ‘Driver Assistance’, while a growing number of cars such as Audi’s highly-advanced new A8 are achieving Level 3 automation. Termed ‘Conditional automation’, it refers to the car monitoring the environment and taking over acceleration, braking and steering, but the human driver must remain aware and ready to regain control in relevant situations. Level 4, ‘High automation’, is where a car can basically drive itself and doesn’t require a human to remain alert, while level 5 is full automation, not even requiring a person to be in the vehicle.
Choice could be the key
Self-driving cars potentially taking the fun out of driving firstly depends on the level of automation. In today’s congested world, commuters will love the ability to let their Audi A8, for instance, take over the controls on their way to work, but then be able to take it out for a spin along twisty country roads at the weekend. Such a balance of autonomy and fun ‘on demand’ would make sense, allowing the car’s owner to make those choices.
Could people own ‘weekend cars’?
It’s when society arrives at the full automation of level 5 that the fun would be taken out of driving, with Google’s latest concepts not even including a steering wheel or any pedals. Some commentators believe that even when most vehicles drive themselves, people particularly passionate about driving will own conventional cars for use on racing circuits and in other places. Whether future infrastructures and legislation will enable that is another matter.
Modern trends affecting the car’s future
The rise of social media along with trends in personal contract hire, city living and leasing all kinds of things from cars to mobile phones, especially among millennials, perhaps point to future generations becoming less and less interested in cars and driving, though.
“For young people, and not just the urban elite, there’s not even a desire to drive”, stated John Heitmann, a historian at the University of Dayton who studies Americans’ relationship with automobiles, when interviewed by the Washington Post.
Cars used to act as objects of self-identification, an expression of freedom and a symbol of status, but the rise of ride-sharing and hailing services like Uber along with improvements in public transport are seeing millennials, particularly males, continue to show a dwindling interest in cars here in the UK, too.
Writing in The Telegraph, Jonathan Wells attributes this trend to the popularity of internet shopping, reducing the need to actually drive to places to buy things. Additionally, computer games have, for some younger people, become so realistic that they don’t feel the need to learn to drive and then pay for an actual car to experience what driving is like.
While safety concerns surrounding self-driving cars will almost certainly be reduced to nought as technology improves even further, it’s conceivable that many people won’t desire to own a car by that point anyway. Just as well, considering the majority of cars look set to be part of on-demand fleets in two or three decades’ time.
Will people eventually fully trust self-driving vehicles?
Commentators often identify trust as the key to car manufacturers capturing the minds and more importantly the hearts of customers when it comes to driverless cars, but just because a person may fully trust the vehicle’s technology doesn’t mean any fun will be derived from the experience.
Personalisation may be one of the answers
Cars intelligently tailoring their interiors and perhaps even driving styles to suit their human occupants may be one way in which fun can be retained. For instance, if a self-driving car senses that the human inside has placed his or her tablet away, the environment has changed from the town centre to the countryside and their heartbeat has increased, the car might change its ambient lighting from relaxing blue to exhilarating red, play more energetic music and sharpen its throttle response.
A mix of self-driving and conventional cars
Sitting in a fully robotic vehicle will unarguably be less fun than being in control of it, especially on open roads away from congestion. A logical balance, therefore, would be for car manufacturers to produce and sell conventional (or Level 3 at best) models alongside their self-driving vehicles. Mazda’s vision points to such a future, for example.
"We will definitely continue to have manual transmission," the firm’s head of powertrains and product planning, Hichiro Hirose, told New Zealand’s popular Stuff news website. "In Japan, this is very unusual and people think we are strange. But we always claim our cars are fun to drive so we need to maintain the manual”, he added.
Public opinion can influence companies’ actions, so if car manufacturers can see in future years that passionate drivers still want to find some fun in the experience, they will surely find a way. Geo-fencing technology could ensure that the future’s self-driving fully-electric cars can be switched to manual mode only when congestion levels and other parameters allow.
For now, then, it’s a case of waiting to see what happens, while firms continue to showcase their robotic technology. With driving an experience that still matters to millions of people, it’s unlikely that car manufacturers will allow it to be completely stifled.