To Drive or Not to Drive

January 2050: Porsche Sweeps Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona: In a dominating performance, Porsches swept the first three places this year’s running of Daytona’s classic endurance race.  “It all came down to our algorithms” said Porsche race director Bernhard Stresser.  “ We tweaked our code- with the changes, our cars were able to pick better lines and more effectively control acceleration and braking.” Not only did Porsches capture first, second and third, the driverless cars shattered race records…

Sure, the idea of driverless cars at Daytona is absurd and, if anything, the stuff of bad science-fiction.  What would be the point of racing automotive robots for twenty-four hours?  Still, one might ask if we’re reaching the point where such a thing is possible, even if it’s undesirable.  Tesla founder Elon Musk predicts that, in ten years, all vehicles sold will be autonomous.  Start your car, stretch out in the back seat with a cup of coffee, pull out your phone and read the news on the way to work.  Head into the office after your car parks itself.  Tesla is well on its way to this reality: the Model S P90D features auto steer, auto lane change, auto park, side collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control.  With autopilot engaged, the driver simply holds down the primary stalk/turn indicator and the car steers itself into the lane indicated.  Tesla’s autonomous system still needs a bit of work- according the website Autoblog, within days of making its debut, a Tesla  S on autopilot was cited in Florida for doing 75 in a 60-mph zone- wonder who got the ticket?*  Perhaps more problematic is the inability of car sensors to operate in inclement environments.  In the near term, Google, which has put considerable resources into developing self-driving cars, doesn’t plan to offer one in areas where it snows.  Yet, most knowledgeable observers have little doubt technology will overcome this problem.

Whether technology can solve the ethical issues posed by autonomous vehicles is another question.  In a column written for CTW Features, Jim Gorzelany wonders what choice a self-driving vehicle might make when faced with a dangerous situation with few good alternatives.   Would such a car slam on the brakes and perhaps collide with an object in the road rather than swerving to avoid the object, possibly running over a pedestrian standing alongside the road?  Save the driver or save the bystander?

Will Porsche enter the autonomous fray?  Recent  comments from Porsche CEO Oliver Blume suggest not.  He believes drivers want to remain firmly in control at the wheel. “One wants to drive a Porsche by oneself,” Blume said in a recent interview with a German paper. “An iPhone belongs in your pocket, not on the road,” Blume added, saying Porsche did not need to team up with any big technology companies. Maybe so; but, lane change assist is now an option on some Porsche models.  And what about Torque Vectoring, Active Suspension Management and Stability Management?  No doubt these features make a car safer and  extend the limits of a car’s performance.  But is something lost when the car does this work?

I got wondering about this when I came across Zach Bowman’s piece on the new Mazda Miata in Road and Track.  After spending two days driving the Miata through Norway on some of greatest driving roads anywhere, Bowman wrote, “The Miata’s a wonder, a thing from a time when the machines we loved best were light and engaging above all else. I thought those were all gone. Extinct. We live among the most complex cars in history, machines that contort their every facet at the whim of an algorithm—adjust steering, braking, and damping faster than your neurons can fire. They’re unknowable devices, and you spend your time pondering what the car’s doing, rather than soaking up your surroundings. This new Miata is good not because it’s great, but because so many other sports cars operate under a different definition of good. One that means faster at all costs.”

There’s no denying Porsche makes some of the greatest cars on the planet and driving one can be the thrill of a life-time.  But, with cars becoming increasingly sophisticated and computer reliant, is there a point at which drivers lose something to ascendant technology?  Maybe, as Bowman suggests, it just comes down to how we define “good” in a sports car.  What’s your definition?

* In response to inquiries from Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will now consider the AI in the company’s autonomous vehicles to be the car’s driver.  A letter appearing on the NHTSA’s Website states, ” NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants.  The letter goes on to state that Google’s self-driving vehicles “will not have a drive in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than 100 years.”

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