Why Human Driving Will Never Die
Technology may solve problems. But you can’t solve human nature.
I recently watched some of my old Cannonball Run videos, and I couldn't stop thinking how much safer I would have been if no one else had been driving. Those pesky untrained commuters. So dangerous. Actually, everyone would have been a lot safer if I hadn't been driving either. If everyone else had been in a self-driving car at the speed limit, and I had been in a self-driving car I'd hacked to go 140 mph, I could have helped my co-driver look out for police trying to stop us. Two sets of eyes are safer than one, and there's no rule that says a human has to be driving, although there should be. For now.
But human driving will never die.
Let's be clear: I love technology. ColecoVision with the tape drive? Uh huh. Vectrex? YES. Capsela? Of course. When the Kenner
X-Wing toy came out in '78, I wore my kiddie brown belt so no one would try to cut in front of me in line. That Sony Aibo robot dog that cost $3000 in 2000? Of course it was terrible, but I had to have one. Palm Pilot with cellular add-on? Apple Newton? Mini Disc? LaserDisc? Gotta collect 'em all.
The biggest technology fans on the planet—and I'm talking about those investing in and working on self-driving cars—don't want human driving to die. I mean they do, but to them all those shared, self-driving cars are for the little people. The investors and engineers? If they don't already own Porsches, Ferraris or McLarens, they're just waiting for their acquisition or IPO.
If you don't believe me, you haven't been keeping up with sports car sales in Silicon Valley, which has Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche and Lamborghini dealerships, and is home to the largest Corvette dealership west of the Mississippi.
But sports cars and human driving will become like horses, right? Please. If all the people invested in self-driving really believed that, Skip Barber wouldn't have gone bankrupt and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) would be bigger than the NRA. Sorry, but the horse analogy doesn't work, because a much higher proportion of people own cars than ever owned horses. Forget peak oil; let's talk peak horse. We hit peak horse about a hundred years ago, and the proportion of the total human population who owned horses was miniscule. Cars? Sales have never been better, and cars are a lot hardier than horses. Also, a lot harder to kill, and they don't run away.
What is self-driving supposed to solve, anyway? Pollution? Electrification solves that. Sharing does too. And trains. Or bikes, scooters and walking. Safety? Skip Barber's one-day driving school costs $1,000. Will I be able to buy a self-driving car that can drive anywhere I can, as safe as or safer than I can, in my life time? Unlikely. But even if I could, the self-driving option is going to cost a lot more than $1,000. It has to. Even if the cost of all the necessary sensors falls well below $1,000, the R&D necessary to make it happen—now surpassing $80 billion—must be recouped. That's not going to happen by selling it one time for $1,000, or even $2,000. BMW tried to charge people $300 for Apple Carplay. Then they dropped it to $80 a year (still criminal). Worse, it's insulting. Anyone with a brain will just bluetooth into the car using iTunes on their phone. Because people are smart.
What do you think BMW would charge for self-driving as a standalone option?
The only way self-driving "works" is A) it's deployed only where it works, and B) it's profitable to deploy. That means geofences, and you can't buy it. Self-driving will become part of rentership culture, which is what the toxic wing of capitalism has been trying to foist on hardworking Americans for decades. When you rent everything and own nothing, your life isn't your own. Add cars to that mix—and especially a car that limits where you can go—and your destiny isn't your own either.
The future is almost here, but it will be tightly geofenced. Human drivers will be the only ones not trapped in its invisible cage.
Let's get real. What do people really hate? Is it driving? No, it's boredom. Driving is fun. Driving in traffic is boring. Also, it sucks. No one in their right mind likes traffic. Traffic is why I take the subway. Or a train. Or a bike. Or a scooter. Or I walk. If I'm going to drive, it's because I have to—in which I case I'd welcome a self-driving mode in traffic—or because I want to, specifically
because it has a steering wheel.
Which brings us to the big secret.
Even if self-driving cars work perfectly, human driven cars—and especially human-owned cars—serve a purpose no AI-controlled pod can, at any price, even for free. It's not hard to understand what it is, or why it matters so much. Cars aren't just tools, or even beautiful tools. They are organic forms, speaking to us literally, figuratively and subliminally. Cars help us see the world, and be seen within it. They expand our boundaries, and close the gap between our true and perceived selves.
More simply, what does a Jaguar E-Type look like?
You know exactly what it looks like. You also know exactly why people want to drive them. It looks like the male organ that serves two distinct and necessary functions. One of them is very pleasurable. The other, not so much. Just like owning a Jaguar.
What does this Pagani Huayra look like?
The Huayra doesn't look like the same thing an E-type looks like. The Jaguar is clearly male. The Pagani is clearly female. The Huayra, like every Italian sports car designed before the Lamborghini Countach, looks like a beautiful woman lying on her stomach, having just woken up, about to get up. She is very expensive. I refer to the Pagani, of course.
What does a Porsche 911—perhaps the most iconic sports car of all time—look like?
There it is. A beautiful German woman lying on her stomach, having just woken up, about to get up. If you question the accuracy of this metaphor, then, like jazz, you'll never understand.
How about the Citroen SM?
Beautiful. Confused. This French classic somehow manages to combine the aesthetic of both male and female organic forms, in one car.
What about Morgans?
There is absolutely no reason Morgan should still be in business. Trust me, I own one. But wait, there is one reason. Morgans look exactly like cars used to, back when car designers chose only the most sexualized organic shapes. Morgans speak to us on a fundamental emotional level, which cannot be said of...
Cars serve two purposes: Transportation or Transformation. A Prius is the perfect solution for transportation. If that's all we ever needed, self-driving would solve all problems. But it can't, because human nature dictates that we are social animals. Like peacocks, we both see and need to be seen, which is why we crave vehicles that are terrible at transportation, but awesome at transformation.
Vehicles like THIS:
There is not one good reason for car doors to rotate vertically. That they can is the point. Not coincidentally, scissor doors look like wings. Scissor doors don't make very good doors, just like peacock wings don't make for very good wings. Transformation requires sacrifice.
How much are people willing to sacrifice to achieve transformation? Here's the Porsche 911 Turbo.
The Porsche 911 Turbo is awesome. It's perfect. There is absolutely nothing to be improved upon.
So why do people pay more for this?
The Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet is inferior to the coupe in every way. Cost. Handling. Rigidity. Safety. That is, every way but one: visibility.
Not the visibility out. The visibility in.
Let's apply that logic to the Tesla Model X.
The Model X is a fascinating vehicle. It's the most ambitious transportation device ever made—packed full of awesome yet totally gratuitous technology—and it's priced far higher than transportation devices of similar functionality. It exists at the surreal nexus of transportation and transformation, forgiven its ungainly proportions for only one reason...
Falcon wing doors. Conveying all the transformative messaging of Lamborghini scissor doors, at a fraction of the price. Those who say the X is overpriced are wrong. It's vastly underpriced, delivering glowing mountains of transformative power to the owner/driver/passenger.
If humans were totally rational, and the logic of the self-driving lobby were sound, consider how different the world would be even in the absence of self-driving cars: Everyone would carpool, share and borrow. Fractional ownership or rentership would be the norm. Lamborghini, Porsche, Ferrari, Pagani, and Koenigesegg would all be bankrupt. Top Gear would never have been the most popular show in the world. Chris Harris would be selling hats in a second-tier manufacturing sector somewhere in England. The NYC subways would run on time. Everyone would drive a Prius, or the equivalent. Buick wouldn't be a luxury brand in China.
Or maybe people are rational, and the cars they buy and drive fulfill a purpose the self-driving lobby cannot quantify, but we can. I can't wait for a self-driving button on a car I own. But until it can drive anywhere, everywhere—including saving me from a hurricane, volcano or power outage — and even if it can—I'll keep my wheel. Actually, make that the whole car. Because there are times I don't want to be driven.
And if you have to ask, then, like jazz, you've got a lot to learn about human psychology.
Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large at The Drive, host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports, — founder of the Human Driving Association, and author of The Driver. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.