The soul of driving

Will autonomous cars take the fun out of driving?

September 4, 2016 | During an auto show tour in 2015, I asked our guide about the advantages of autonomous driving. I couldn't imagine wanting to give up the enjoyment of driving. The tour guide framed the technology as an option - driverless capability allows you to pass on driving if you're too tired to drive or don't want to sit in traffic.

But I still find it difficult to feel enthusiastic about the concept. I'm not scornful towards autonomous driving, but as a prospective owner, driverless capablity would be my last consideration. As an urbanite who mostly hasn't had to drive for years, driving is an option and is almost always associated with increased freedom and great enjoyment. And I grasp that people who have to drive would consider the concept appealing. But when others envision a future with completely autonomous driving - are they thinking in terms of "optional"?

I agree that arguments for the superiority of driverless cars miss certain key considerations. Chief among them is the soul of driving, and to some degree the soul of being driven. 1 2

Driving is such a good way to relax while intently focusing. And being a passenger is the perfect time to just think, daydream, and process the day. When traffic is light, the experience can be meditative and even cathartic. Driving alone on a highway, you can play any kind of music at any volume and sing along, distance yourself from life's stresses, explore alternate personalities, write poetry, and do stuff like this.

By contrast, autonomous cars will provide one more justification for having to be digitally overconnected. Without the need to concentrate on driving, we will be freed up to engage in yet more calls, skype, texts, and email communication. We will have more free time to fill up with work obligations and personal tasks.

As an overconnected culture, we're already grappling with too much connectivity, and we're already missing out on the soul of driving. To actually benefit from the potential to use driving as a meditative or distancing activity, one would have to commit to tuning out devices (which we should all do anyway!) and limiting media to music and the radio.

While automakers compete with and collaborate with Tech, there is talk about reductions in manufacturing jobs and dealership car sales. This is too complex a topic for this space at this time, but I don't think that this is inevitable. For one thing, if online sales is superior to dealership sales, why do customers still visit dealerships? And why does Tesla have "showrooms" rather than operate 100% online?

There is something about the human interaction - however imperfect - that dealerships offer, and that will probably never be adequately replaced by automation or dealerships posing as showrooms.

So what does this have to do with acoustic vehicle alerts? It's a matter of investing in our future. Automakers and agencies such as EPA and NHTSA are investing heavily in autonomous driving research and development, while ignoring deserving but less sexy safety and sustainability concerns. Those who take pride in investment in autonomous driving, mobility solutions, car sharing, and other currently popular sustainability issues, while ignoring easily modifiable aspects of their vehicles that pollute residential, urban, and natural soundscapes, should invest in quieter technology at every opportunity. 3

When it comes to this issue, automakers should set aside their determination to keep up with and work in concert with soulless, ageist, sexist, opportunistic competitors and decide that it's time to do the right thing and get behind quiet by design concepts for every vehicle feature. By all means, invest in driverless cars. But remember that we don't need to be more connected than we already are, and we are smart enough and considerate enough that we don't need to use warning sounds for anything other than emergencies.

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