Even the most ardent advocate of human driving will admit it if you pump enough drinks into them: Having self-driving cars around would be pretty nice. Those of us with gasoline in our veins and Mobil 1 in our joints may quote Chuck Heston when anyone even dares hint at a world where the privilege of driving ourselves around might be stripped from us, but having a button under the steering wheel that pops on Level 4 autonomy when we have to take a phone call or need to fire off a quick nap.
And that's the people who actually care about driving. For the vast majority of Americans, who look at cars the way they do refrigerators, a life free of the burden of working steering wheels and pedals no doubt sounds delightfully freeing—especially if, as the likes of Uber claim, it could also mean an end to car ownership. In light of that, those ambitious predictions of a future filled with shared, summonable autonomous pods seem more realistic with every passing day of 21st Century stress.
But even in that future, it seems likely that some types of car will survive. Indeed, if past is precedent, there's already an example for the human-driven car will be: horses. For thousands of years, equines served as our primary conveyance and transportation tool, utterly remaking every aspect of human life from agriculture to warfare. Today, however, they've been relegated to secondary roles. They're used in choreographed dances for the entertainment of the rich; they're raced against one another; they're used to navigate terrain where the current day's mainstream forms of transportation would fear to tread, if machines could feel fear. It seems likely that the car as we know it—four wheels, a steering wheel, two or three pedals—may wind up meeting the same fate: sidelined, rather than completely replaced.
So which types of human-piloted wheeled vehicles will endure a century from now, the way the horse has held out in a handful of niches? Well, the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and several thousand other horse races suggest the Indy 500 won't be trading in its single-seaters for Cyberdyne racers anytime soon. Same goes for the likes of the Vandal One, the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, or any other car made first and foremost for civilians to take to the track in anger; likewise for supercars bearing Prancing Horses and Raging Bulls and Swedish ghosts and so on. Indeed, any sort of sports car—a vehicle that is, by definition, an emotion-driven choice, rather than a logical one—seems liable to stick around well after most minivans and crossovers and family sedans have seen their steering wheels grow vestigial.
But there's another category of car that exists in large part as a celebration of the joy of driving. Not one hewn to a fine point to split apart hairpins at 10/10ths or blitz the quarter mile in 10 seconds or less, but one made for the comfortable, effortless, and rapid crossing of long distances. A car that combines back-road driving fun with highway pleasure. In other words: a gran turismo.
It was with all this stirring in my mind that I clamber into the 2019 Bentley Continental GT in downtown Los Angeles for a long drive across the wide-open American West late last year. Thoughts of self-driving cars dancing like sugarplums in my head, being fresh out of Automobility LA—the future-facing name for the media days at the start of the L.A. Auto Show, where forward-thinking types congregate to spitball about distant tomorrows before the cars of the near future are unveiled beneath harsh convention center lights.
Indeed, were the GT category to be wiped out in a flash like the dinosaurs, the new Conti GT might stand, like T. rex, as the most intimidating version to go out on. For its third generation, the Cont trades the old bones that tied it to the likes of the front-wheel-drive-based Volkswagen Phaeton for a new bloodline closely related to the latest Porsche Panamera. Unlike any Porker around today, though, there are 12 thundering cylinders beneath its hood. Combine those dozen pistons with a pair of turbochargers and some of the savviest engine tech found in the halls of the VW Group, and you wind up with an engine making 626 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque. Combine that with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and an all-wheel-drive system that shuffles power around as needed while always favoring the rear wheels—a maximum of 38 percent of power can be routed to the front axle, except in Sport mode, when that drops to 17—and you wind up with a car that, in spite of a curb weight north of 5,000 pounds, can sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds and run the quarter in 11.5 seconds at 123 mph, according to the number nerds at Car and Driver.
Not that there's much opportunity to explore that performance trundling around downtown LA, where perpetual traffic makes driving soul-crushing no matter what sort of car you happen to be in. Fleeing the area was at the top of the to-do list from the moment the Bentley's Zippo-sized key fob was in hand and my luggage was in the trunk. Plenty of wide-open interstates stretch out of the Los Angeles basin into the surrounding area, but they're largely charmless routes—blunt instruments of mobility designed to move people and goods between metropolitan areas as directly as possible, clogged with tractor-trailers and laced wth hidden highway patrollers itching to crack down on those who dare violate arbitrary speed limits. Instead, the Bentley and I book it north and east, skirting around the San Gabriel Mountains and along, past the aviation hubs of Palmdale and Victorville and the dry pancake of El Mirage and into the sweeping state highways roads leading off to Joshua Tree.
As mentioned in the first drive review of the convertible version, the Conti proves itself to be one of those cars like the Cadillac CTS-V where it's just so stinking fast, it's painfully easy to wind up exceeding your desired speed. 85 miles an hour feels you're walking; it's only when you push the speedometer into triple digits that it feels like it's actually starting to try. But it doesn't feel like work; it feels like a happy canter, the car finding a gait that it could jog along at all day long without stressing it—or the human behind the wheel—in the slightest.
As with the previous Continental GT, a V8 version is forthcoming; as with the last version, it'll all but certainly be quick enough to never leave you wanting. But the mighty twin-turbo W-12 engine behind this Bentley's schnoz delivers its strength so seamlessly, it's hard to imagine anything else propelling this car down the open road. The power is effortless, always there, even with the engine ticking along at low rpm, you can sense it rumbling close at hand. It's very manageable; a dab of throttle serves up a dollop more speed. Slam on the gas, though, and the big Bentley sinks its four tires into the pavement like cheetah feet and blitzes for the horizon with an urgency capable of making even the most polite Mormon spit out a four-letter word. It'll never be that quick on a track—there's just too much weight—but in the real world, the Continental GT feels so all-conquering, it's hard to imagine any car being able to outrun it, at least not without a fight.
Big, relentless power has long been a trademark of the Flying B, though. The latest Conti also brings newfound handling bona fides to the table, thanks no doubt in part to those Porsche-related bones found at the heart of the car's chassis. The new setup, which pushes the front axle more than five inches further ahead than before, means the engine can sit further back in the chassis, improving agility; combine that with its adjustable three-chamber air suspension, which can tense up or relax in a moment, and the result is a linebacker that moves like a running back. Slam the drive mode selector into Sport mode to tell the adaptive suspension and dual-clutch gearbox you want to play, and this massive British GT tackles curves with a vigor that would leave Porsche 911 Turbo drivers feeling right at home.
Indeed, Sport proves a little too vigorous for the gently curving ribbons of asphalt stretching east out of Twentynine Palms, holding the revs higher than needed and steeling the suspension beyond what's necessary for slurping up this stretch of road. The default driving mode—dubbed "Bentley," and illustrated in the instrument panel with a black-on-white B that makes the onyx circular drive mode display look like an 8-ball—proved the best setting here, serving up brisk shifts when needed while still letting it cruise politely when most of those ponies aren't needed.
Past Joshua Tree National Park, the last of the traffic disappears, leaving a 92-mile stretch of empty road lancing straight into the Colorado Desert. The distances out here deceive you; even with the speedometer pegged at 100, the distant mountains barely seem to inch closer, like glaciers creeping towards you at a geologic pace. In a minivan packed with unhappy children, it'd no doubt feel like hell. Alone in a 626-horsepower Bentley with the setting sun turning those mountains gold and blue, it's heaven. Straightaways and high-speed sweepers trade off again and again, a blacktop ribbon there for the taking. It's a road made for a grand tourer, and the Conti and I make the most of it, the car's broad nose punching down the straights before the calipers clamp down on the massive discs with the force of Samson pulling down the columns of a temple. It's a rare day when you find the car you're driving is made for the road you're on; this day is one of those rare ones.
Still, the drive isn't faultless. My car is a Euro-spec early build—Americans won't be able to mosey into their Bentley dealerships and pick up a 12-cylinder Continental GT until the fourth quarter of this year—and as such, comes with the occasional bugaboo. I spend several dozen miles with rage percolating due to the buzzing rattle coming from a speaker in the passenger door that I assume is due to a loose wire somewhere. Every single bump transmitted into the cabin—and with the lunar road surface in this particular chunk of rural America, there are plenty of bumps—causes a burp of static that make it sound like aliens were trying to contact me through the Naim system. (Worse yet, seeing as how the problem lay with the stereo itself, using the otherwise-wonderous 18-speaker, 2,200-watt stereo to drown out the buzz isn't an option.) Blessedly, the problem corrects itself eventually, but that little span of time is still enough to leave me cursing the Crewe-worker who didn't lock that wire down tight enough.
Far less forgivable, though, is the road thrum bouncing around the cabin along with the buzz on the rough pavement. That's as much an indictment of the 22-inch wheels wrapped in razor-thin tires as it is of the pizza-faced pavement, though. While the 22s give the Conti undeniable presence (and help mask its size in photos), the minuscule amount of sidewall means the rubber's ability to soak up thumps is limited. And since Bentley avoids using such gauge technologies as active noise cancellation on principle, the oscillating racket manages to make its way to my years in spite of the many, many pounds of passive sound-absorbing materials. If you're ever so lucky as to buy a Continental GT, stick to the standard 21-inch rims.
Apart from that spurt of worst-case-scenario road noise, though, the Bentley's cabin lays beyond reproach. From the small herd worth of cattle hides (in "Linen" and "Burnt Oak" finishes, in my tester) to the rich wooden veneer ("Dark Fiddleback Eucalyptus") and the gleaming metallic trim bits to the color-changing LED mood lighting to the five separate massage programs ready to rub away road stress, it's every bit worthy of the house-sized price. Even the nicest house you can buy for $277,360, after all, won't be this luxurious inside...nor will it carry your restless soul across a continent.
Indeed, climbing back into the interstate system in Quartzite, Arizona for the final 130-mile stretch, the ride proves relaxing enough to let the mind wander back to self-driving cars. After all, the Bentley is already edging up to the periphery of autonomy, what with its adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist letting drivers leave the act of piloting to a sliver of their lizard brains. Keep one eye on the road and one hand on the wheel on the off chance you need to seize manual control, and you're free to ponder the mysteries of the universe—such as when the other cars and trucks on the interstate no longer need any eyes or hands serving as insurance.
One day, of course, there will be electric Level 4 autono-cabs puttering around town and self-controlled big rigs that only need humans as harbor pilots to moor them in and out of loading docks. But while the day they arrive in cities to send Uber drivers to the bread lines will surely come in the next couple decades, a day of driving through one minuscule portion of the big empty that makes up so much of this country is enough to question the technology's inevitable usurpation of automobile culture.
Even if shared self-driving cars become ubiquitous, as a business, they require population density to work—something millions of square miles of America lack, and millions of Americans prefer life without. And don't forget about the technological demands needed to push autonomous vehicles into rural areas. Who will spend the billions to string the 5G towers necessary for autonomous vehicles across thousands of miles of rural land—places that don't even have enough cell phone coverage to make a phone call, even 18 years into this century? Who will spend the time and treasure building charging infrastructure needed to support fleets of shared electric AVs that will sit empty much of the time, either waiting to be summoned or en route to a rider who lives 10 miles from the nearest town? Will towns and counties just scraping by today be forced to spend millions to pave and paint dirt roads so robot cars can stay in their lanes? The obstacles to widespread adoption of self-driving cars in rural places, it seems, are so massive, it's hard to see a way to overcome them anytime soon.
And aside from that, on a philosophical note—what of the emotional connection between man and machine? Cars aren't just a means of conveyance, after all. They inspire us. Something about the automobile speaks to that piece of the soul where art springs from; the raw power, the sense of freedom it unlocks, they bring forth the best of our creativity. Countless books and songs and poems and TV shows and films have been written with cars ands trucks playing key roles—as characters and catalysts alike—over the last century. If the steering wheel goes the way of the wooly mammoth, what happens to that chunk of the spirit that find solace and serenity behind it?
No one's ever going to write music about self-driving cars, I think.
Finally, a little more than nine hours after leaving LA, it arrives in the windshield: Phoenix. Well, to be fair, it doesn't so much appear like Manhattan's skyscrapers as creep up on you—especially at night, when all you can see are lights: two, then four, then eight, then 16, the sodium-vapor and LED and halogen pinpricks spread out across the ink doubling over and over again as you press into the edge of the city's sprawl.
And sprawl it does. While America is indeed the land where cars rule above all other forms of transportation, few places epitomize that as well as Arizona's capital. The city's growth over the last century has been almost exponential; while the population climbed from 29,000 people a century ago to 107,000 in 1950, the subsequent decades saw it rocket skyward, leaping to 439,000 by 1960, 790,000 by 1980, and 1.3 million in 2000 en route to 1.63 million today, spurred along by ever-cheaper air conditioning and ever-more-common automobiles. That car-centric philosophy has absolutely informed the city's layout; the dense Phoenix metro area that encompasses adjacent places like Scottsdale, Chandler, and Glendale may boast more than four million people, but they're spread out over an area that holds four times as many in and around New York City.
Even without the area's insufferable summertime heat—temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit—using feet or a bicycle as a primary means of transportation would be difficult; the distances between places further than most Americans want to walk, and the sidewalks and recreation paths always playing second fiddle to roads in urban design. As such, the local culture has become intertwined with automotive life; even where walking is possible, it's uncommon. One night during my stay, I decided to hoof it the mile to a restaurant; in spite of the pleasant temperature, flat terrain, and plentiful sidewalks along the way, I passed maybe one other pedestrian along the way. If you're looking for proof of the automobile's place of honor in the United States, look no further than Phoenix.
It also happens to be one of the few places in American you can find horse racing in December. Which was one of the reasons I pointed the Bentley's prow to Phoenix, rather than somewhere more exotic. Perhaps the people at a horse race, I figured, can provide some clue as to how our descendants will view the human-driven car. So I steer the Conti to Turf Paradise, a race track located in the northern part of the city. If you've never been to this charming little center of Southwestern racing, let me paint a picture:
Imagine the Kentucky Derby, glamorous and lush, packed with people and quivering with energy.
Now imagine the exact opposite.
Turf Paradise is a threadbare establishment with stained linoleum floors, several restaurants that would make Guy Fieri's stomach turn, and a color pallette straight from an Indiana nursing home—an odd cross between a third-rate casino and a 1980s minor league baseball stadium. Even a crowd of thousands wouldn't change the fact that this track feels decades past its prime; apart from the digital scoreboard outside, it looks as though it hasn't changed in 40 years.
Still, there were more than a couple people there—most of them outside, gathered in an area between the paddock and the finish line that's thick with the smells of hay and horse breath. Some of them consult racing forms, weighing the odds of the beasts parading past—but many of them, young and old, seem entranced simply by the animals themselves.
"We're mostly here for the horses," a mixed-sex group of millennials says. One girl cites their unpredictability—you never know what they're going to do, she says.
Next to them, an old man in a Santa hat with shattered teeth and a sweet voice who says he's been coming to the track sporadically for 20 years reiterates their point. “I like to watch the horses, like to bet,” he says.
John, a stocky salt and pepper 50-something in plaid shorts wearing thin reading glasses under his wraparound shades, says he likes to come to watch the horses; he grew up around them in Omaha, with his parents bringing him to the track.
“Don’t really expect to make much money, it’s just something we like," he says. “There’s always gonna be a need for horses...people connect themselves emotionally.”
The scene grows quiet as the horses walk by. The competitors are like race cars, high-strung and running hot; slower, gentler horses accompany them like pace cars, there to keep them calm. For a moment, the whole scene seems pulled from an earlier age. If all this—people, land, money—is still here for the horse a century after the species lost its transportation role to the internal-combustion automobile, it's all too easy to picture people clamoring around to watch gas-powered, human-controlled cars idling up to a starting line, soaking up the fumes of oil and gasoline the way these spectators seem to revel in the smells of manure and sweat.
Reassuring as it is for the old-fashion car's future to see people gathered around the track, Turf Paradise is too sad a place to stay for long. (At least, if you're not drinking, which seems to be how many of the attendees are passing the time between heats.)
The races, however, are hardly the only place to find equines around Phoenix. Strange as it may seem to those of us living east of the Mississippi, 67,000 wild horses can be found across America, and a population of them runs free in the dry, saguaro-strewn hills outside the urban sprawl. I point the Bentley towards the Tonto National Forest, in hopes of catching a glimpse. Cruising around for an hour reveals no sign of them, however—except for the many actual signs advising motorists to keep their eyes peeled for errant bands of horses, at least. (The drive does serve up plenty of delightful photo spots, however.)
Perhaps, I think, this will be the ultimate fate of the human-driven car a hundred years from now: unfenced and running loose in the quiet spaces between population centers, hidden away from civilization. Sure, some may endure as attractions in city centers, the way horses pull carriages in Central Park; others may spend their lives on race tracks, like the colts sprinting around Turf Paradise's dirt oval. But a great number seem liable to continue on, far from the insanity of urbanity, wild and free and still sparking joy and frustration and inspiration amongst those lucky enough to spend time with them.
And somewhere among those free-range automobiles, maybe...the Bentley Continental GT will live on.