Yes, cars and driving will still thrive in the coming Age of Autonomy

September 20, 2017

At a conference in Vancouver, Canada, I was introduced to Ziv Aviram, the brilliant and charismatic co-founder of Mobileye, the leading developer of collision-avoidance technology that will someday help usher in the era of driverless vehicles.

After learning I was the CEO of the world’s largest insurance provider for classic cars, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to put you out of business.”

We both laughed at the time, but I was rattled: “Is he right? Will driverless vehicles eventually be the death of driving? Are we in the twilight of the great American love affair with the automobile?”

It’s a jarring thought. Like so many Americans, I’ve been smitten with cars and driving my whole life. I bought my first – a ’67 Porsche 911S– for $500 and fixed it up with my dad. I would go on to own and tinker with other vintage vehicles, but the 911S has remained my favorite. It’s my ritual car. Every spring when the snow melts in Northern Michigan, I slip behind the wheel and take it out for the season’s first spin, a big smile on my face. I take it out again one last time – usually just before Thanksgiving – to mark the end of another driving season.

I cherish these bookend drives, and every drive in between, for the simple reason that I like the “me” I am when I’m behind the wheel more than any other me. It’s about being in the moment, being present with the car and road.
If you’ve felt it, you know what I’m talking about. And it’s almost inconceivable to imagine a day when we leave driving entirely to the car itself and we’re all shuttled to and fro inside little egg-shaped podmobiles.

That day is coming, of course. There’s no stopping technology, and who would want to, anyway? Autonomy will be a great thing for the world and especially for those living in evermore congested cities. It will save lives, improve commutes and unclog freeways.
But it won’t happen as quickly as we’re told. Current predictions are for 10 million self-driving vehicles on the road within three years. But that figure assumes an awful lot – first and foremost that consumers will trust, embrace and be able to afford the new technology.

Then there’s manufacturing problem. A Big Three executive recently told me it would take the max capacity of every major auto company in the world 40 years to replace the world’s existing fleet of cars with self-driving smart ones, and that’s if they started today.

“The idea that the roads will be filled with driverless cars within the next decade is a good story but it’s not reality,” he said. Companies that make driver-controlled vehicles, he quickly added, “aren’t going anywhere.”

Neither, I suspect, are drivers. Autonomy won’t be the death of driving. I firmly believe there will always be a place in the American heart for driving, tinkering with and drooling over cool cars. After all, Henry Ford’s horseless carriage didn’t put horses out of business. Horses, in fact, are more popular than ever – a $39 billion dollar industry in the U.S. Why? Because people love horses. Horses – and everything that is part of the horse experience – make people happier because when they’re grooming them, feeding them or riding them, everything else disappears.

Cars and driving have that same effect on me – and a lot of other people, too. Let’s keep it that way.