The Woodward Cowboy’s Lament
Well before he was pulled over on an L.A, freeway by the driver of a Cobra who wanted to know why he was “stalking him,” Wally Wyss was captivated by hot cars. A Woodward wrangler, he commandeered the family’s no frills four-door to pursue the nightly show of enhanced, modified cars that heralded the dawn of the performance age in Detroit.
That freeway encountered in the early ’70s led to an interview and photos of the Cobra with Carroll Shelby and Wyss’ first of two books on the iconic master of stuffing big engines in small cars. Since than the arc of Wyss’ passion has taken him to buff book staffer, freelancer, author of a few books, blogger and, currently, a co-host of Autotalk broadcast weekly on KUCR-FM in Riverside Calif.
Now, he fears the era is over. First run on Carbuildindex.com, this is his lament for what he believes was and will not return.
The End of the Enthusiast Car As We Know It
After seeing a recent panel discussion Oct. 25th at the Art Center Classic, a panel with three designers, I left in a blue funk. (Not a car but a kind of mood) It reminded me of when, a few years ago, I sold my Nikon F3 film camera, and a few lenses for $200 to a young man who thought, if he was shooting film like Ansel Adams, he could take pictures the equal of Ansel Adams. He didn’t realize if Ansel Adams were still alive today, he would be shooting digital like nobody’s business.
In other words, what I was seeing on stage from the three speakers, one a former BMW designer, one a current designer for Volvo, the third in charge of GM Advanced Design, was a gradual admission that autonomous cars are creeping in.
Well, I am here to tell you that when they arrive…they are going to do a lot more than just creep. Think of a 100-ton steamroller that is going to change the car market forever.
Now Chris Bangle, the former BMW designer on the panel, hinted that this isn’t all bad news for car enthusiasts. He said there will always be a place for car enthusiasts, just as there are for horse riding enthusiasts after the car was invented.
But this was shocking to me because horse riding enthusiasts are a tiny group, almost invisible, so he is implying that car enthusiasts shouldn’t worry, there will be tracks where we can take our still-need-to-be-steered cars to, and that’s it. We will be treated as mild eccentrics, to be kept out of harm’s way.
THE MACHINE TRIUMPHANT
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, who is already offering a autonomous app on the Model S, once was quoted that what we have to fear down the road is the computer. I think that is putting it mildly. Why? Because once that first lawsuit over who’s at fault in an accident between an autonomous car and one still steered by a human is won by the owner of an autonomous car, it will be the beginning of the end for human steered cars. I am talking about the suit where the autonomous car owner says “yes, my Tesla did all the calculations and said it was OK for me to turn left, it was the human coming toward me that failed” then it will be acknowledged that The Machine’s judgement will and should always prevail over those pathetic humans that still think they can decide a car’s course, speed and such.
Uber is really the best example of how fast this change will take place. Among millennials living in big cities, there is no longer a desire to buy a car. Why? If all you need is to go over to meet a friend at a Starbucks a couple miles away?
So they use Uber, Lyft or other competitors.
The automated self-thinking car is already creeping into new cars feature by feature—with such checked off items as Traction control. Lane Control. Stability Control. Automatic Braking. Steering-by-wire. Self-parking.
It is only a matter of time before the autonomous mode will be on the option list.
It is actually possible now to offer this in the new cars of 2017, but the obstacle is mainly legal. When that big accident occurs, will the courts decide the car’s computer on the self driving car was superior in this case to the poor judgment of the driver? The next step will be to meet the demand of autonomous car owners (just as hybrid car owners were catered to) with special lanes on the freeway set aside for those who checked off the autonomous box on their car’s option list. And of course cars piloted by humans will be forbidden to go into these lanes. I can even see your still human piloted cars issuing you your own ticket for daring to invade the newly claimed territory of the autonomous drivers.
THE DEATH OF THE CAR AS A STATUS SYMBOL
And coincident with all this will come the death, for large parts of the market, of cars that have sold in the past as status symbols. I can just see, in only 10-15 years, a show in which a car that’s brand new today in 2015 being put on display to ridicule how we, as consumers were manipulated by irrelevancies. Wood dash? How quaint. Rolls Royce style grille? What for?
A lot of the things that sell luxury cars now will be considered laughable when 10-30% of the car market will consist of people who have reduced the car’s importance in life to a mere conveyance, as a Point A to Point B machine. Cars could look like GE toasters on wheels to this type of consumer. There will be no pride-in-ownership, as cars will be interchangeable. As Bangle joked at Art Center, when you get out of an elevator, are you proud of that conveyance. It means nothing to you. It just got you from one floor to another.
As a car enthusiast, I can see the owners of enthusiast cars in the next few years being crowded into their own little events, a concours here, the rental of a racetrack there, but we—the owners of cars that are actually still driven by humans– will be seen as irrelevant annoyances, representing the inefficiency of doing things the human way.
As an enthusiast, raised in the old school with golden memories like downshifting my 12-cylinder Ferrari as I enter the Malibu tunnel so I can relish in the sound at 7,500 rpm, I’ll fight the autonomous car every step of the way, but using my camera example, I will never go back to film. The machines are less likely to fail us, thus must rule, must dominate. Our course, as a society, is irreversible.