Will self-driving cars sever our long-running emotional connection with the horseless carriage?

Johannesburg - As we head inevitably into a future where we’ll be shuttled to and fro by autonomous cars, it’s likely that the passion of motoring will take a back seat.

In a self-driven car where you’re checking emails or watching a movie, it’s unlikely that things like slick handling, big power or heart-racing charisma will be at the top of your must-have list when it comes to buying such a car.

In vehicles that will effectively become mobile lounges, it will be more about ride and seating comfort, refinement, and the effectiveness of the infotainment system. That’s stuff we already care about in today’s vehicles, but it will assume much greater importance over other factors that many of us still hold dear, such a car’s 0-100km/h time or its cornering agility. There will be no charismatic engine sounds to trigger our aural receptors either, as cars will be electric.

Golden age

I forsee that this growing emotional detachment from our cars will lead to styling becoming less of a factor too and that the utility of maximum leg and headroom will win out over design flair. This may see our roads filled with generically-styled, shuttle-shaped conveyances.Private car ownership will also gradually fade away as ride-hailing services like Uber increasingly take hold, leading us further away from our intimate attachment with the automobile.

Right now we still live in a golden age where anyone with a driving licence is free to drive on public roads, and over the coming decades there will be a transitional phase where human and machine-driven vehicles will share the streets. But as the convenience and safety benefits of autonomous cars will inevitably become more apparent, I believe there will come a day when human-driven cars might be legislated out of existence.

With artificial intelligence at the wheel, car crashes will become more or less extinct as the human factors of impatience, bad judgement and recklessness are done away with - and no one will ever have to worry about drinking and driving. As the saying goes: “The only problem with the car is the nut behind the wheel.” As the clean road-safety record of autonomous cars eventually leads to the banning of human-operated cars from the world’s roads, self-driving will become a pastime to be practiced by enthusiasts only on closed circuits and racetracks.

One day in the future, it’s possible that human-driven cars could be banned from public roads and only allowed on closed courses.

All this will likely lead to the demise of a number of automotive marques, particularly those built on an emotional or fun-to-drive factor - Mini and Alfa Romeo would likely be among the first in the firing line. Perhaps exotic marques like Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini too, unless they manage to survive as collectors’ items or to cater for the track-day enthusiasts.

This utopian scenario (or dystopian, if you enjoy driving) may seem like a far-fetched dream in a way-distant future, but it’s probably closer than you realise given the warp speed at which technology is progressing.

The concept of autonomous cars seemed like science fiction just a short time ago but look at how far we’ve progressed in the past decade. Already we have cars such as the new Audi A8 that can drive all by themselves in certain situations. And an increasing number of cars today, not just the expensive luxury ones, are fitted with semi-autonomous features such as the ability to keep a safe following distance, stay in their lanes, change lanes, automatically swerve or brake to avoid accidents, and park themselves.

Uber plans to start carrying passengers in autonomous vehicles without human backup drivers as early as 2019, albeit initially in a relatively small area that is covered by detailed three-dimensional maps.

Instilling ethics

There’s still a lot of R&D required before we set fully-robotised cars loose into the wider world. We still have to teach these cars how to deal with every possible hazard including inclement weather, roadworks,  poorly marked roads,  and (perhaps most challenging of all) minibus taxis - all without frying a microchip.

We’ll have to instil these cars with a set of ethics too: for instance, in an impending collision would a self-driving car choose to crash into a pedestrian crossing the road, or swerve into a tree and kill its passenger? Just as importantly, we’ll have to make these computerised cars unhackable by those with ungodly intentions.

These are some of the obstacles to overcome before the day we can simply say “to work” and sit back while the car navigates the traffic jam all on its own, but that day is inevitable. By some estimates, in just 20 years’ time on in four cars on our roads will be autonomous.

Are we to lament our looming emotional divorce from cars? Our relationship with the automobile has certainly been a volatile one with extreme highs and lows, and as much as we may love driving them and seeing them as status symbols or extensions of our personalities, millions of lives have also been lost on the roads.

If artificial intelligence can drive more safely than the biological kind, and also relieve us of the stress of driving in traffic, then eventually making all cars self-driving will be (ahem) a no-brainer. But the divorce won’t be easy, and some of us will rail and protest at Big Brother taking away yet another of our self-destructive pleasures.

So as we head into a future of soulless self-driven electric cars reduced to their original utalitarian roles, let’s treasure the time we still have left behind the wheel. For now we can still appreciate the lore of driving: the roar of a multi-cylindered petrol engine, and the feel of a perfectly-weighted steering and taut suspension as we scythe through a twisty mountain pass.

Drive 360

Follow Denis Droppa on Twitter @DenisDroppa