Some say that being behind the wheel of a top-end sports car is like being in driving heaven.
You feel the surge of bone-rattling raw power at your command and skillfully execute tight turns that would make most people blanch with fear. With gentle touches on the accelerator pedal and a quick yank of the gear shift knob, you find yourself zipping along the open road and become totally immersed in a sense of blissful thrill and utter freedom.
Suppose though that the sports car was being driven by an AI-system, one that could handle the so-called hypercar – the fastest and oftentimes most expensive top-end models– as well as a human. Indeed, imagine that the AI could even exceed the capabilities of a normal human driver and push the vehicle to limits that even a pro would likely blanch at.
Would you still want to be riding in the top-end sports car? Or, would the inability to drive the vehicle by yourself, using your own hands and feet, be such a disappointment that you would say ixnay to riding around in one?
Some may see self-driving tech and sports cars as a kind of oxymoron, suggesting that never the two shall meet, but there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
Consider Porsches And Self-Driving
One of the most notable ongoing debates about whether top-end sports cars will ultimately be infused with AI true self-driving car capabilities seems to surround Porsches.
In 2016, a long time ago in the unrelenting quest toward more advanced driving features for cars, Porsche’s CEO Oliver Blume was quoted as saying that “one wants to drive a Porsche by oneself.”
At the time, many pundits interpreted this noteworthy and somewhat haughty remark to mean that there would never be a self-driving version of a Porsche.
Then, just last year in 2018, the Porsche North American CEO Klaus Zellmer said this: “Our plan is to always have the steering wheel and always have the pedals and potentially to even have the manual gearbox to really engage with the car and to do it all yourself.”
This crucial comment would tend to reaffirm the human driver as the only true driver of a sports car, though Zellmer also indicated this: “But, our customers always want it all. They want the possibility to use autonomous drive mode, but they want to really engage with the car as well.”
The advent of the new Porsche Taycan, an Electrical Vehicle (EV) sports car, stokes anew the debate about whether sports cars are going to be self-driving or not.
Since most self-driving cars are tending toward EV’s, and now that Porsche is bringing forth an EV sports car, perhaps the day of driverless sports cars is dawning upon us.
Furthermore, Porsche is already heading in the self-driving car direction, per their indication in March of this year that they are working on a driverless feature to have their cars drive themselves while at the repair shop, moving under their own self-driving action from a parking spot to the service bay. As per testing described by Alexander Haas, Project Manager for Automated Driving: “Autonomous driving will revolutionize our road traffic in just a few years. However, we can already use the technological possibilities available today to make work processes even more effective and efficient.’
For those that have long been on the side of “you’ll pry the steering wheel from my cold dead hands” outcry camp, it is important to realize that there has been a broadening definition associated with self-driving and sports cars, one that maybe you like or hate, depending upon your viewpoint.
Sharply put, the question is not whether sports cars will have self-driving, but instead whether they will have only self-driving and exclude human driving as a possibility.
This is a significant point worthy of elaboration.
Let’s take a moment and sort out the various ways in which self-driving tech applies to cars.
There are semi-autonomous cars that require a human driver to be present and able to drive the car, doing so in a co-sharing arrangement with the automation of the car. These are often referred to as Level 2 and Level 3 cars and make use of ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
Even more cutting-edge are the truly autonomous cars, ones that are self-driving and there is no human involved in the driving task. These driverless cars are considered at the Level 4 and Level 5 of self-driving autonomy (none fully exist as yet, and the roadway trials taking place are at best the lower-end of a Level 4).
For a sports car, you could be the type of person that insists there not be any ADAS or only very limited ADAS, since you don’t want the automation to be in your way and be undermining your desired control and command over the vehicle.
I doubt that those types of drivers are going to prevail and inexorably the vaunted sports car will increasingly have ADAS.
It could be that the ADAS allows for having a lighter or heavier hand in co-sharing the driving task with the human driver, perhaps a knob that allows you to select high or low for the automated assistance, but nonetheless the ADAS is going to be there and you aren’t likely to see sports cars without it.
The real crux of the debate centers around true self-driving capabilities.
Some see this self-driving topic as an all-or-nothing proposition, namely a sports car either has self-driving and it is always and only being driven by the AI, or it does not have self-driving and thus it is a semi-autonomous car that involves a human and AI co-sharing the driving task.
Must it be that way?
A counter-argument is that you could have true self-driving, which would mean that the AI is driving and there is no human driving involved, and yet also have a human-driving mode that allows a human driver to disengage the self-driving and revert the car back to being semi-autonomous.
For example, you drive your sports car on the scenic coastal highway and reach your destination in Malibu, aiming to dine at a fine restaurant overlooking the sea. There doesn’t appear to be a valet standing at the entrance of the eatery, so you get out of your car and turn-on the self-driving feature, telling the car to find a suitable parking spot. Away goes your sports car, driving itself until it manages to neatly park the car for you.
As suggested by the insight that customers will want what they want, I think you’d be hard-pressed to have even the most fanatical sports car fan be upset that the self-driving mode was used to park the car.
In fact, it is likely the sports car driver would insist upon and be overtly perturbed if they didn’t have that kind of self-driving capability, especially if other driverless cars were on the market and could do likewise (and were cheaper cars!).
Overall, it could be that a car, including sports cars, might have a true self-driving mode and yet also still retain the semi-autonomous mode, allowing for a choice between which mode you might opt to use.
There are admittedly some thorny legal issues to be dealt with in such an arrangement, including that existing laws tend to require that if there are driving controls then those driving controls must act in a prescribed manner and the car can’t just opt to ignore those driving controls when a human attempts to use them.
If such laws could be adjusted, the car could either be in the self-driving mode, or it could be in the semi-autonomous mode, and never would it be in both modes at once. The self-driving mode being mutually exclusive of the semi-autonomous mode.
This does though bring up a bit of a conundrum.
We’d better consider the downsides of such an arrangement.
Self-Driving As All Or Nothing
First, just to clarify, in the scenario being postulated, it is assumed that once the self-driving mode is engaged there is no human driving involved.
One question that immediately arises about the self-driving car mode aspect involves when the human can choose to take over the driving and opt to disengage the driverless function.
If a human driver can disengage the driverless function at any time, it would imply that while the car is going 70 miles per hour on the freeway and the human suddenly decides to take over the wheel, the self-driving feature “gives up” the car controls to the human.
This might be a bad idea.
The human driver could be drunk and has stupidly and wrongly decided to disengage the driverless feature.
Or, maybe the driver inadvertently touched the disengage button, and terrifyingly realizes that they are now supposed to be driving the car.
As such, those that are proponents of the self-driving car “mode” say that there would need to be stated conditions under which you could disengage the driverless feature. It could be that there isn’t any means to disengage the self-driving if the car is underway, and instead, you need to come to a complete stop and then can turn-off the driverless mode and take over the controls.
Having a driverless mode that can be switched on or off, even if done in some prescribed and thoughtful manner, doesn’t appeal to those that argue the self-driving has to be all-or-nothing, meaning that a car is either a self-driving car or it is not a self-driving car.
For those that believe the self-driving car will be a means to reduce or possibly eliminate car crashes, they would find abhorrent the notion that a self-driving car could sometimes be self-driving and at other times be human-driven.
The moment you open the door to any amount of human driving, it means that you are once again likewise opening the door toward human drivers that will cause car-related injuries and deaths. Remove the human driver from the equation and ensure that only AI driving is allowed, and thus presumably no more worries about those pesky and unreliable human drivers.
Though the aim to ultimately get rid of all human driving might be laudable, no one can say whether we all will agree to such a condition.
Will people really be willing to give up their “right” to drive (well, it’s a privilege, granted by the government, but in any case, people tend to think of it as an inalienable right)?
There are approximately 250 million conventional cars in the United States alone, and once self-driving cars arrive (the kind that are only self-driving), those will be doing so among a lot of ongoing human-driven driving. For the foreseeable future, true self-driving cars that are exclusively and only self-driving are going to be mixing with human-driven cars.
That being the case, some would say that having self-driving cars that provide a self-driving mode and yet also still allow human driving would not be out-of-place with the mix of cars that will be on our roadways anyway.
Furthermore, for Level 4 cars, self-driving is limited to stipulated ODD’s (Operational Design Domains), consisting of the car manufacturer specifying under which conditions the self-driving will properly operate.
An automaker might state that their self-driving car works only in sunny weather, and the self-driving capability won’t engage when there is rain or snow or will disengage once rain or snow starts to appear.
Presumably, the Level 4 cars will still have human driving controls, allowing for a human driver to drive a car that has reached the limit of its ODD.
Just because there is rain, you aren’t likely to be willing to have your self-driving car sitting around and waiting for sunshine to appear. Instead, you are bound to decide that you’ll go ahead and drive the car, and once the weather changes then perhaps reengage the self-driving capability again (some pundits insist that Level 4 cars should only be driven by the automation, thus, once the car has exceeded its ODD, it will become a multi-ton paperweight).
Overall, considering that Level 4 cars might continue to have driving controls, the debate about having a self-driving mode is not quite so far-fetched.
The use case that makes the matter more vexing involves the Level 5 cars, which don’t yet exist, and we don’t really know when they will be achieved (some say not for a very long time).
Utopian World Of Only Self-Driving Cars
The grand vision is that we will someday have only Level 5 self-driving cars on our roadways.
In this Utopian viewpoint, there won’t be any human driving at all.
Self-driving cars will presumably eliminate car crashes (not quite true, as I’ve debunked), and the AI systems will communicate with each other via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communications, allowing for the smoothing out of traffic snarls and other adverse roadway circumstances.
I would guess that it will take numerous generations of us humans to gradually believe that the legal removal of human driving is something we all agree is worthwhile and willingly accept.
You could then assert that arguing about self-driving cars that are exclusively self-driving is somewhat premature, or I suppose the other side of the coin would be that it is a holistic look down-the-road at a faraway future we might envision.
Another option involves considering having self-driving cars that are on our roadways in special lanes or otherwise set apart from the rest of conventional traffic.
Thus, no need to wait for a world where all conventional cars are gone.
This could be done, though the economic cost and infrastructure efforts would be relatively significant, raising questions about whether doing so would be worthwhile.
Riding In Self-Driving Sports Cars
Earlier, the question had been posed about whether people would be interested in riding inside a sports car and yet not be driving the sports car, instead allowing the AI to self-drive the top-end vehicle.
There would be situations that a sports car driver might prefer to have the self-driving be undertaken, such as the example of parking the car.
Perhaps an astute driver that realized they were too tired or maybe too tipsy would sensibly engage the self-driving mode.
Maybe the sports car driver would want to observe how the AI drove the car, learning some nifty tricks and techniques for when they as a human opt to drive the high-performance vehicle.
And so on.
You can certainly anticipate that people that aren’t comfortable driving a sports car at all would undoubtedly relish being able to go for a ride in a sports car that was self-driving, especially if the driverless mode was as good as or maybe even better than a human driver.
Imagine the excitement of feeling what the sports car can do, such as the Taycan that reportedly can go from 0 to 60 in about 2.6 to 3 seconds, all being driven by the AI system (if ever so outfitted).
Of course, one question arises concerning where could you experience the full depth of the sports car performance?
You aren’t going to get much of a thrill presumably on freeways that limit your speed to 70 miles per hour.
Sure, you can have the driverless feature take those corners with the tires peeling and can possibly get the AI to do some modest sporty driving, but other than if you go for a ride on a closed track, you probably won’t get the full sport performance experience.
In theory, the AI system would be purposely crafted to allow only legal driving, meaning that there’s not going to be any high-speed excursions that take the car to its top speeds and go beyond the traffic laws of your locale.
One final thought involves sports car ownership.
There are some that seem to try and intertwine the self-driving car aspects of a sports car with the ownership aspects of a sports car.
In other words, the argument goes that if sports cars are self-driving, those driverless cars won’t be owned by individuals, and instead will be owned by corporations that have those self-driving cars in fleets.
I don’t ascribe to that theory.
My somewhat contrarian view is that we are going to have individual ownership of self-driving cars, including sports cars.
I argue that the money to be made by ridesharing your self-driving car will create a large cottage industry of people aiming to make some bucks from their driverless cars. While you are at work or asleep, your self-driving car will be roaming the streets and making money for you.
Therefore, I vehemently disagree with the assertion that if sports cars do get outfitted with self-driving tech that it means the death knell for sports car ownership by individuals.
It would perhaps surprisingly promote individual ownership, potentially making the high-end expensive sports cars financially available to those that heretofore could not afford one.
That does raise a whole another topic, namely whether sports cars will lose their prestige and panache if it turns out they can be driven by AI and undermines the belief by some that driving a sports car is a uniquely human attribute.
I’m sure that there are those in the high-end sports enclave that would be dismayed to think that just any everyday commoner might soon be able to go for a ride in a fancy sports car, and if so, wonder how such a change might impact our societal perception of sports cars.
For the moment, those of you that love your sports cars, make hay while you can, though please do so safely.