The end of driving as we know it?

Capture.JPGVehicles are getting more and more bloated, it seems. Not just in size due to consumer demand and safety regulations, but also in terms of tech. Just consider some of the available technologies in today’s automobiles: infotainment systems, back-up cameras, parking assist, smart cruise control, lane departure warnings, blind-spot detection, and automatic braking. But there’s something more significant to consider than all of this: self-driving (a.k.a. autonomous) cars.

We may be years away from self-driving automobiles becoming mainstream, but already some companies (such as Google) are testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. And let’s not forget Tesla’s software update a few months ago that added Autopilot features to its vehicles, allowing for semi-autonomy with things like Autosteer and Autopark.

Progress is good, but I’m not entirely sold yet on self-driving cars. As it is, we’re living in an age where sports car manufacturers are moving to smaller, turbocharged engines and quick-shifting automatic transmissions. Sure, they may offer better performance, but there’s something to be said about a naturally-aspirated engine mated to a manual transmission where the driver is the one in charge. Even if one is driving a beat-up economy car, there’s still a sense of freedom and control.

Don’t get me wrong. Today’s vehicles are safer, faster, and more reliable than ever before. I have to admit, I love having a back-up camera in my car. Plus, if/when autonomous vehicles do become a thing, I’m happy for those who will now have accessible transportation, such as the elderly or people with disabilities. And, who knows, perhaps if every automobile was autonomous and expertly programmed, we could all reach our destinations safely and efficiently with no traffic jams and (hopefully) no road rage. Such vehicles should also eliminate drunk- and distracted-driving accidents, in theory.

It’s just that the skill – and perhaps even the responsibility – is being taken out of the equation. Driving is being dumbed down, to put it bluntly. Having the car do everything for you is like eating sushi with a fork. The art of driving is dwindling away.

Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I think it’s important to go through the ritual of driver’s education and learn car control. Developing good driving talent is a big accomplishment in my book. It’s satisfying, too, just like learning any new skill. Getting my driver’s license was a coming-of-age moment for me, but in the future, a “driver’s” license may go the way of the rotary telephone.

Another thing to contemplate with all this new automated technology is the possibility of something failing, not to mention car-hacking. What if a vehicle’s sensors don’t spot a pedestrian because his clothing causes some sort of a camouflage effect? What if adverse weather conditions affect the functionality of sensors? What if a hacker reprograms someone’s car to drive in circles?

Moreover, are we counting on the car’s computer to make ethical decisions? Think of the age-old “trolley problem” – if a self-driving car is heading straight towards a group of five people, does it have the right to change course and hit one other person instead? These are all questions that companies and governments will need to ponder as we head closer to autonomous vehicles becoming a norm.

I’m certainly not advocating that we go back to archaic cars lacking ABS, airbags, or traction control. Much of the tech we have available today is for everyone’s benefit. I’m just looking for a happy medium: cars with modern safety technology and lower emissions, but not totally automated, lifeless robots that suck the fun and skill out of driving.

For those of us who enjoy simpler, purer automobiles, all hope is not lost. There will still be plenty of used machinery on the market with actual pedals and steering wheels, even row-it-yourself transmissions if you so choose. They may require extra upkeep, and might be considered obsolete, unsafe, or environmentally-unfriendly compared to future vehicles. But I don’t see older vehicles being outlawed or banished to junkyards anytime soon…at least I hope not.

In the meantime, I’ll keep driving an acceptably-modern car that I can control myself. Are you ready to embrace self-driving vehicles? Have your say below.

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