We Need An NRA-Type Lobby for Human Driving
Driving is a privilege, not a right. Here’s how to save it.
I love cars, and I love driving. I’m lucky enough to spend my life around amazing cars and drivers as passionate about them as I am. Most, I assume, are good people. The others? They’re killing it for the rest of us. Being passionate about cars isn’t the same thing as being passionate about driving. If it was, insurance rates for Evos and STIs would be cheap. For Ferraris? Free, except for theft coverage.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for autonomy for those who need it, but human driving—and enthusiast culture with it—is doomed unless those who would claim to love it do more than lease high-end cars and buy aftermarket wheels and exhausts. If enthusiasts want to retain the freedom to drive anything, anywhere, at any time, driving has to become as sacred as the cars on the posters on our childhood bedroom walls.
We face two possible futures, with but a single bitter dose of medicine separating one from the other. There’s still hope—if we take action before it’s too late.
The Best-Case Scenario:
The best case scenario is an increasingly mixed world, unfolding over the next thirty years, of human- and self-driven cars with aviation-type transponders, navigating a sea of tracking devices, automated pay-by-the-mile tolls, GPS-based automated ticketing, pay-by-speed/lane privatized roads, tiered navigational pricing, and mandatory autonomous zones.
And surveillance, surveillance, surveillance.
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) will evolve into better versions of what most manufacturers currently fear: a Level 3 semi-autonomous system resembling a future version of Tesla Autopilot. Use will be mandatory for those with learner’s permits and moving violations on their records, and optional for everyone else. If we’re lucky.
Again, that’s the best case.
The Worst-Case Scenario:
Driving is a privilege, not a right. It's why you need a license to operate a car. Once self-driving cars arrive (and that could happen within five years) losing your job will no longer be a barrier to a judge permanently revoking your license. Once RFIDs are embedded in driving licenses, car “keys” are tethered to driver profiles, and your insurance rates are directly tied to your driving behavior in real-time, driving as we know it is over.
States that have seen revenues slashed due to tax cuts will restructure point systems to penalize, deter, and prohibit “dangerous” human drivers—then impose similar taxes on the self-driving cars into which these non-driving humans will be forced, saving us nothing but the “burden” of the driving we currently cherish.
Here. Eat This Automotive Broccoli. Trust Me.
Semi-autonomous and fully autonomous cars aren’t distinct points on a single continuum; they’re two different paths. If we want to save human driving, enthusiasts need to become ambassadors for driving rather than for cars—even if it’s for semi-autonomous driving.
We need to embrace every semi-autonomous safety technology that hits the market. We need to use semi-autonomous technology to become better drivers than self-driving cars, for as long as that’s possible. If we can match or surpass the safety statistics of self-driving cars once they arrive, only the incompetent will lose their licenses, as they should.
The Human Driving Association
There’s no lobbying group for drivers. Manufacturers, who have a powerful lobbying presence, only care about selling cars. What about the Specialty Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (SEMA)? They’re hawking aftermarket performance. Out of 2000+ companies I saw at the recent SEMA convention, I counted only three selling aftermarket safety.
We need a Driver’s Lobby. A Washington-based organization for enthusiasts, perhaps inspired by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Let’s call it the HDA: the Human Driving Association. If we are to protect human driving, then human drivers have to prove they're worthy of the privilege. We need to weed out the unskilled, lazy, and dangerous to the point that they don’t drive, at which point they will cede the road to real enthusiasts willing to earn the privilege.
Any and every manufacturer that wants to keep selling cars with steering wheels should sign onto this. It’s win-win if they’re also offering self-driving cars. They should fund the HDA the way insurance companies fund the non-profit Independent Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Alas, all of this means pushing for technologies and regulations that may seem draconian today. Trust me, if we embrace these now, they’ll save us from something worse later.
Which brings us to the next point, and, boy, am I gonna take some heat for this list...
1. Federalized Driver Licensing
Sorry, but it’s true: We need common standards, like they have in Germany. Licensing needs to be difficult. Expensive. Been to a Latvian DMV? There’s a bar in it, but there are also video cameras over the desks for the written test, to prevent cheating. And Audis for your road test. With video cameras, so the other students can watch and learn from your mistakes. Been to an American DMV lately? Don't get me started.
2. Professional Driving School/Master & Tiered Licensing
Tiered or “Master” licenses almost hit the Congressional floor in the seventies. Brock Yates loved the idea. So do I. If you’ve been to Skip Barber, or have an SCCA license, shouldn’t you be allowed to drive a little faster? Don’t have time or can’t afford that extra level of licensing? Then you can’t afford to kill someone. If you can afford to buy a sports car, you can afford professional driver training.
Just got your license? Your car should be performance-limited until you can prove that you can drive safely.
Just had an accident? You should have to go back to school, and go through a debrief of your accident with an expert. Wait, there's an idea AI should be applied to.
3. Cars/Mods/Licensing Tiers
In games like Forza Motorsports and Gran Turismo, you need to qualify for better cars, races, and higher speeds. Why should real life be any different? Your car should have to meet minimum safety standards to drive over certain speeds, in certain conditions. Summer tires in the winter? Winter tires in the summer? NOPE. Put RFID chips in tires and monitor tire wear, and Paul Walker would still be alive today. Did you install Brembos and return to Skip Barber for a refresher course? Driver’s license level unlock!
This, of course, will require a central registry and all sorts of government involvement. Unlikely in the current political environment, and, probably, ever. But worth a shot.
4. Hands On Wheel Interval Sensors
Three and nine. Heard of that? If you haven’t, you shouldn’t have a license. I’m fine with three OR nine. I’m even fine with taking your hands off the wheel because you dropped something, or want to eat, or pick your nose. But not for too long. Luckily, Lane Keeping Assistance will improve, but you should still keep a hand on the wheel. If you can't be bothered, give up your license and get a Self-Driving Car.
5. Cell Phone Interlocks
Unless it’s hands-free and integrated, you can’t use it. Answer a handheld, lose your license. Things like Waze will have to be integrated into cars for anyone to agree to this, but that’s another story.
6. One Year Mandatory Ban For DUI. Lifetime For Two.
Self-explanatory. No patience for this. Zero Tolerance.
7. Voluntary Breathalyzer Interlocks
If we do this, we won’t need DUI laws. Unsexy, but I’ve seen prototype solutions that don’t require breathing into a tube.
8. Make ADAS Great.
Tesla has shown us the way. Don’t believe me? Go drive any Tesla NOT on Autopilot and look at the Situational Awareness Display in the central cluster. Almost every luxury car on the road today has forward-facing radar, but only Tesla’s actually uses it to give the driver information to make human driving safer. Why aren’t manufacturers giving us all the tools at their disposal?
9. Augmented Reality
In its infancy, but the next logical step past Head-Up Displays. Integrated with Tesla-type situational awareness, the HDA should push for this to become mandatory. Why aren’t there systems resembling Flight Protection Envelopes? Stability Control systems suck.
I could go on and on. More down this road in another column #soon.
Alex Roy, entrepreneur, President of Europe By Car, Editor-at-Large for The Drive, and author of The Driver, set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in a BMW M5 in 31 hours & 4 minutes, and has set multiple "Cannonball" endurance driving records in Europe & the United States in the EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.