Hands-Off Driving

When I moved into a new house a couple years ago, part of its appeal lay in a quality that doesn’t show up on any real-estate listing: the final half mile of road before the driveway. The pavement spills down into a valley and then climbs up a blind roller-coaster ascent, with drainage dictating that several corners are paved all the way onto the shoulder, terminating with a soft berm to guide water on its way down the hill—paint some red-and-white stripes on it and it would look like corner curbing. My sway bars get a workout every time I leave the house. I estimate that this stretch of road raises my property value ten percent among people who know what sway bars are.

It also regularly demonstrates how many of our fellow citizens are either utterly uninterested in or just plain horrible at driving. I was on my way out the other day and nearly suffered the world’s most stupid head-on collision because a woman on her way down the big off-camber left was cheating the inside—as I sometimes do myself—but her eyes were fixed at a spot perhaps two inches beyond the hood of her Chevy Tahoe. I crowded as far toward the ditch as I could and slowed to a crawl as I waited for her to register the hunk of metal occupying the oncoming lane. At the last moment, her face lit with surprise, she swerved right and continued on her way. And I thought, not for the first time: autonomous cars cannot arrive soon enough.

There’s a school of thought that says self-driving cars are the antithesis of everything worthwhile about the automobile. Autonomous vehicles subvert the glorious freedom of the road, replacing visceral kinetic excitement with passionless robotic transport. We’ll all become so many UPS packages en route from point A to point B. Just stamp a tracking number on my forehead, why don’t you?

OK, I hear that. But here’s the thing: the majority of people don’t care about driving. They don’t know much about cars, and they pick their noses in the fast lane. Pop quiz: would you rather have a Nissan Juke or a Rogue? The correct answer is the turbocharged, manual-transmission-offerin’, funky-ass Juke. Yet last year the sedately inoffensive Rogue outsold the Juke by more than four to one. We who care about driving, we are Jukes, my friends. Jukes in a Rogue world.

So if all the drooling catatonics want to get into their cars and push a button that takes them straight to the lobotomy party, then let ’em at it. And you know what? Let me at it now and then, too, because even the most hard-core gearhead has to admit that driving is not all fun all the time.

Traffic jams. Interstates. Stoplight suburbia, speed limit 30. Say, does your commute to work include the Tail of the Dragon? No, it does not. There’s that one nice on-ramp, but the guy in front of you thinks that exceeding 0.15 g is strictly the stuff of daredevils like Cale Yarborough. Even rally races have transit stages, which introduce an extra element of realism by challenging racers to resist road rage when the car in front of them doesn’t move even though the light changed five seconds ago.

Those are just some of the reasons why I love adaptive cruise control and its new partner, lane-keeping steering. During Automobile of the Year testing last fall, I drove the Infiniti Q50—or rather, it drove itself—nearly two miles before I had to intervene. I understand the ire directed toward that car’s steer-by-wire system, but I strongly suspect that if Infiniti had slipped us a QX60 with the same setup, nobody would have noticed. However, because this very tangible harbinger of autonomy arrived in the shape of a sport sedan, we took it personally. Perhaps our crossovers don’t need us, but our rear-wheel-drive sport sedans? Car-formerly-known-as-G37, how could you?

I say there’s no shame in embracing electronic driver assistance. If I’m sailing toward an immovable object and not hitting the brakes, I’m all for my car strobing the windshield with some freak-out lights and clamping the binders itself. I consider myself an alert driver, but I’ll wager that Mercedes-Benz’s predictive brake assist gave me an important edge when a moron in a minivan blindly pulled out into my lane and forced me to thread a CL550 up onto the adjacent sidewalk. Sorry, body shop, but technology helped save the day.

Our worry, of course, is that two rolls of toilet paper will fall off a truck and unspool a new “lane” that your robo-car will follow right off a cliff. And I can’t guarantee that won’t happen. But we’re playing the averages here, and over time our borg-mobiles are going to save our skins more often than not. Is it possible that Hugh Jackman might go all Swordfish and hack your Q50’s steering? I just don’t know. But I do know that the Q50 can watch the vehicle two cars ahead to prepare for emergency braking, and scanning two cars ahead is beyond the wherewithal of 99 percent of the driving public.

Ideally, when it comes to autonomous driving we’ll have it both ways. You’ll tell your BMW to go park itself at the airport, then you’ll take the helm for a road trip to the Cherohala Skyway once you get home. Driving will be reduced to just the fun part, the tedium transferred to our chariots.

That’s my hope, anyway—let my car drive me around town or schlep me to the airport, but when I’m on that last half mile from my house, I want to feel the wheel twitch in my hands when I hit that bump on the downhill left. I want to take the racing line across the drainage gutter. I want autonomy over my autonomous car.

A few years ago, we kicked around the idea of handing Automobile Magazine’s Technology of the Year award to the off switch (as in, the ability to turn off stability control, traction control, and other electronic nannies). Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t, because I have a feeling we’ll want to revisit that nomination a few years down the road. Now home, Q50!

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