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Will Autonomous Cars Kill Car Culture?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2016

Every so often, people ask me about autonomous cars. And I always answer in the exact same way. First, I curse these people for bringing their very existence into my general vicinity. Then I scream like a banshee at the top of my lungs.

No, I'm just kidding, that's what I do what I do at the grocery store when the person in front of me tries to have a conversation with a cashier even after payment has been completed.

What I do when I'm asked about autonomous cars is this: I tell people that autonomous cars are coming, and they'll probably remove a lot of the things even I find boring about driving, and they're probably a little further off than you think. But when I think about autonomous cars, the rollout and the driving experience aren't the biggest things on my mind. What I'm usually thinking about is car culture.

Consider it: Car culture has developed around a society that essentially needs automobiles in order to go anywhere. Some of us happen to enjoy the "going anywhere" process a little more than others of us, and so we buy vehicles like the Volkswagen Golf R. Or the Porsche Carrera GT. Or that Hyundai with more doors on one side than the other.

Which, of course, begs the question: Is anybody going to care about cars once the act of "going somewhere" becomes something that a machine does?

First, I think it's important to understand a little more about autonomous cars. I recently drove that Tesla Model X with that Autopilot system that everyone says is killing people, and I discovered that it's pretty far along -- but not as far along as I thought. It's great in heavy traffic and on the highway, but it can't read traffic lights, it can't read stop signs, it can't do bad weather, it doesn't work when lane lines are faded and it has trouble on crosswalks. Folks, it has trouble on crosswalks.

Now, I don't know about you, but all these things make up an enormous portion of my driving. Faded lane lines? Traffic lights? Bad weather? We're going to need something better than that.

And, indeed, it's coming. But I think it's still a ways away: Tesla's Autopilot is a good start, but I think vehicles we can actually trust to drive ourselves in the majority of actual situations are probably still a decade off, maybe more. The primary issue is that nobody seems to have figured out snow, fog or heavy rain -- and, frankly, that's when I want an autonomous car the most. So there's some work to be done.

But they'll get there. And then what?

First off, I think this utopia of hailing shared cars that we ride everywhere isn't a likely solution in our lifetimes. People enjoy owning their own property, they enjoy the comfort and branding of their own vehicle, and there will be times -- even in the utopian future -- when we'll simply have to steer ourselves. So I think people will still own their own vehicles. And given the possibility of software failure, hardware failure or unusual road conditions, I think vehicles will still have steering wheels for decades to come -- which means we'll still have to learn how to operate them.

But car enthusiasm will surely take a hit, right? Once we can sit back and install a home gym in our automobiles rather than drive them, we won't care about cars anymore. Right?

I'm not so certain. I strongly suspect car enthusiasts will continue to exist, much like horse enthusiasts continue to exist today -- even though the horse is no longer necessary for transportation. Instead, it's a hobbyist activity, and a rather popular one, with hundreds of thousands of people across the globe buying, riding, showing, handling, maintaining, trading and betting on horses.

Here's one reason why I say this: People just love speed. It seems there will always be enthusiasts for any activity that involves moving or going fast -- from horseback riding to skiing, snowmobiling, jetskiing, boating, flying planes, blah blah blah. The list goes on and on. Admittedly, car enthusiasm will probably be smaller than it is now, as I think fewer people will grow up knowing the joy that can come from driving your own automobile. But I think it'll still be there.

The biggest difference? We'll no longer have to commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic, constantly moving our foot from the accelerator to the brake, inching along, barely moving the steering wheel, listening to radio ads, wishing we could work from home, where we didn't have to wear pants.

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Will Autonomous Cars Kill Car Culture? - Autotrader