Is America in danger of losing its driving wanderlust?

October 31, 2017

CEO at Hagerty Group, Past YPO Board Chairman, Partner in Grand Ventures, Speaker, Emerging Author

I took part in a panel discussion the other day about whether America is in danger of losing its wanderlust.

The reason for the discussion was self-driving cars. If you don’t follow car news, trust me, it’s a hot topic. No one knows when truly autonomous vehicles will become a common sight along the nation’s 4,071,000 miles of highways and byways. But we do know that at least some will be out there soon. GM is said to be deploying driverless cars next year with Lyft, the ride-sharing company. Ford says cars with no gas pedal or steering wheel will pop up in a city near you by 2021.

Hence the panel discussion. Our host set it up this way: “America was built on people who just had to get up and go places, whether it was the pilgrims and the Mayflower or the pioneers and their Conestoga wagons. Are we going to lose that?”

Some think so. They see driverless cars slowly and subtly changing us all into Point A to Point B people with no real interest in driving just for the pure joy of it, much less going off the beaten path to find out what lies elsewhere.

I’m not so sure. When one technology begins to overtake another there’s a tendency to believe that everything that came before it will be destroyed, but the evidence suggests it’s not true. When the horseless carriage arrived, horses didn’t disappear. In fact, they’re a $39 billion industry in the U.S. People will always love and keep horses. Cars will likely be no different.

There’s also the aforementioned American urge to get up and go places – that’s not likely to go away either. Yes, some people might decide it’s a perfectly fine idea to get up and go in their self-driving pod-mobiles. Maybe self-driving cars will even have a “wander mode.” Who knows?

But I suspect there will always be people like me who won’t want a car to drive them – they’ll want to drive the car. They’ll want to be in charge of the speed, the braking, the route – everything. There’s just something to be said for doing it yourself and going your own way. Always has been, always will be.

My daughter and two college buddies discovered that this summer. They took part in the great American ritual of driving cross-country just for the heck of it, with only the roughest of itineraries in mind. They had a few adventures and misadventures along the way, which is why you go. But when it was over, I asked them what surprised them the most, and they said, “Arkansas.”
“Arkansas?” I said.

“Yeah, Arkansas,” they replied. “It was just really beautiful.”

Isn’t that cool? These are college kids who never in a million years would have seen Arkansas if it weren’t for their trip. Now it’s part of their memories forever.

That’s the power and value of driving.

I like to think – somewhere deep inside – most of us have that urge to go on a road trip or, on a whim, turn onto that gravel road we’ve bypassed a million times, just to see what’s down there. But I can see how the relentless “most efficient route” algorithm of GPS programs and the “sit back and let the car do the work” promise of fully autonomous vehicles could someday deaden the wanderlust in some.

That’s OK. Not everyone loves to drive. Not everyone seeks adventure or escape. Some just want to get where they’re going safely and efficiently with no detours or delays. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Vive la difference.

But that’s not me. Whenever we come to the Great Age of Autonomy, I plan to keep my “road less traveled” muscle strong by exercising it as often as possible – destination unknown, route unplanned, and in a car I drive myself.

I suspect I won’t be alone.