The Drive‘s Alex Roy Talks Autonomous Driving and the Cannonball Run

Why the self-driving car won’t be the end of human driving—or record runs.

byThe Drive Staff| PUBLISHED Apr 15, 2016 11:56 AM
The Drive‘s Alex Roy Talks Autonomous Driving and the Cannonball Run

As regular readers know, The Drive editor-at-large Alex Roy is uniquely well suited to discussing both self-driving cars and cross-country speed records. In 2006, he drove his E39 BMW M5 from New York to Santa Monica in 31 hours and four minutes, breaking the old Cannonball Run record. And he hasn't slowed since: In the last year, he's set multiple long-distance records behind the wheel of the Autopilot-equipped Tesla Model Sincluding a Manhattan-to-Detroit marathon earlier in the week.

While in the Motor City, Roy stopped off at the SAE World Congress on April 14 to deliver a talk entitled "The Cannonball Run vs Wall-E: The Future of Car Culture & The Coming Autonomotive Singularity." But since we know most of you probably weren't able to make it to Detroit to attend an engineering conference, The Drive sat down with Roy to pick his brain. Spoiler alert: He doesn't see self-driving cars putting the kibosh on his fun.

"The Cannonball Run represents the ultimate in human driving," Roy said, but adds that it's culturally outdated. We can't do that sort of cross-country dash safely anymore, he argues, and we shouldn't. But a future filled with self-driving cars, according to Roy, could actually make the Cannonball Run safer. If all the bad drivers clotting up America's highways turn over control to predictable machines, he suggests, a skilled human driver might be able to dash across the country more quickly and safely than today.

And if you remove humans from the driving equation entirely, cars might be able to dash from coast to coast even faster. If it's possible to hack into an autonomous car's driving systems, Roy asks, would it be possible to hack it to safely drive faster than its original programming instructed it to? He seems to think so. In fact, Roy says he thinks a self-driving car could do the Cannonball Run route in a cool 24 hours. (The current record, set in 2013, sits at 28 hours and 50 minutes.)

But Roy says he believes that the government will never ban human driving, no matter how safe autonomous cars become.

"Cars are not transportation," he says. "They are transformation." Humans, he says, will always want to be associated with certain characteristics of the cars they use.

"People are always gonna want to drive up to a nightclub or a fancy restaurant in a sports car," he notes.

Roy's takeaway: as long as people still want to drive, they'll find a way.

"Human driving will always exist. You can solve for pollution, you can solve for traffic. But you can't solve for human nature," Roy says. "Driving is a vice. And people don't want to give up their vices."