The Next Extinction: Drivers

The Asphalt Jungle

Arthur St. AntoinewriterThe ManufacturerphotographerTim Marrsillustrator

It's over, gang. Say goodbye to the joy of exercising your car on that favorite mountain road. The steering wheel is going the way of the dodo. Not only are autonomous automobiles on the horizon but, says no less an authority than Tesla CEO Elon Musk, one day they may even make driving illegal. "You can't have a person driving a 2-ton death machine," he told the audience at a recent tech conference.

Musk later clarified that he "hoped" it wouldn't happen, but then I read a recent article in Wired. Now I realize we auto enthusiasts are doomed. Titled "The Mercedes Robo-Car That Made Me Want to Stop Driving," it's a fawning ode to the Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept—a barely functional self-driving prototype that nonetheless had the author "totally psyched." But it wasn't the breathless hype of the Robo-Car that made me realize an autonomous sword of Damocles does indeed hang over our heads. It was the galling admissions of the author. Of his San Francisco drive to the Mercedes news conference, he writes: "I was late, so I wasn't exactly driving cautiously. I weaved through traffic going 15 mph over the speed limit, alternating between tailgating and passing cars on the right. Because I didn't know where I was going and didn't take the time to plug the address in the car's nav system, I had my eyes glued to my phone for much of the trip." Then he adds: "I was an example of every reason why humans stink at driving."

Bull. Humans don't stink at driving by nature. They stink by choice. What you're actually an example of, sir, is every arrogant, self-absorbed twit who willingly puts the lives of others at risk because he's too busy checking the "likes" on his Facebook page to leave for his scheduled appointment on time. You're the ludicrously licensed "driver" who behaves as if cars are autonomous already, consciously abandoning his legal and moral duty—watching the road—to stuff his face into his precious smartphone.

It's yet another nail in the coffin of the human-guided automobile.

As the Wired article points out, more than 30,000 U.S. motorists die in crashes every year—roughly 90 percent due to driver error. Alcohol accounts for much of the carnage, but distraction plays an increasingly lethal role. For far too many, piloting a car has become a nuisance, a waste of time better spent on the boundless riches of the Internet. Indeed, Mr. Wired finds it "tantalizing" that a driverless car would allow him to "read, text, chat, email, tweet, whatever." Ah, so many Instagrams, so little time.

For you and me, driving isn't a chore that robs us of yet another profound tweet. It's a skill to be learned, practiced, constantly honed. There's pleasure and pride to be had simply in doing it well. Some humility and respect are essential: Poorly handled, cars can indeed become 2-ton death machines. Mind you, I'm a realist; I get that accidents happen. Hell, legendary test pilot Scott Crossfield died piloting his light aircraft. But that only reinforces why it's up to every one of us to be on our best game at all times. That's the pledge we make—or should—for the privilege of partaking in automotive freedom.

Alas, as a species, we're failing. Laughably. For me, simply driving around my home city of Los Angeles has become the single biggest stresser of any given day. Everywhere I look I see them: drivers gunning down neighborhood streets at 60 mph, blowing through stoplights redder than North Korea, texting with one hand while tuning the Pandora radio with the other. They simply can't be bothered to shoulder the gargantuan responsibility of guiding their steel missiles as safely and competently as possible. And so, while they're busy catching up on Snapchats, HAL 9000 is going to take the steering wheel away. From all of us.

I find myself curiously at odds. If the failings of the driving public mean the end of Porsche Caymans and Chevy Corvettes, of the bliss of pushing an artfully designed engine to its redline, of pointing the wheel to any tick on the compass simply because we can, I'm going to shed more than a few tears. But if it means the dim and the oblivious no longer have access to the driver's seat, relegated instead to tweeting away in their soulless Robo-Cars, well, I'll be "totally psyched."

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