Sunday, July 20, 2014

The War On Driving

Lately, I’ve heard several people say that they hate driving. As someone who’s always felt the opposite way, I wonder why.


My daily commute to work, roughly 18 miles each way, takes me 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic. I could get to the same destination, but in almost twice the time, if I took several trains and a few short walks to and from these trains. I could avoid the hassles of driving: navigating roads with their painted lines and colored traffic lights; dodging bicyclists, pedestrians, animals, and, of course, other drivers; monitoring my car’s speed, fuel, mileage, tire pressure and myriad other vehicle maintenance requirements. I could simply sit on a train and read, catch up on work, check my social media, etc., but I choose not to. Why?


For me, the ability to get directly from point A to point B on my own timetable and in privacy (or with company, if I choose), is spectacular. Time alone in my car allows me to think—about the day, about tasks at hand, about weekend plans, about the political situation in Wherever. Anything really. Since I began driving to work I’ve also rediscovered one of the greatest inventions of our time—the radio. I have access to new and old music, news, sports, comedy, you name it. Most importantly, I have some respite from staring at a screen. Although the way automotive technology is heading, this may not be the case for much longer. Driving is my time to unplug (if you drive an electric car, pun intended!), relax, and think. I try to make my driving experience enjoyable and to appreciate that when I’m driving I have control.


This doesn’t appear to be true for many people. Here’s an example. This morning on my drive to work it was a beautiful day here in Boston. The sun was shining and birds were chirping. As I drove to work with my windows down, listening to my favorite summer tunes, I looked at the cars around me and noticed that no one else was enjoying this moment. Nine out of ten drivers were sitting in their cars, windows up, in climate-controlled cubes, staring down at an unknown object at every stop sign or traffic light. In the days when rolling down a window takes only a single push (no longer even a hold!) of a button, it boggled my mind that on this glorious day, people preferred to sit in their cars, windows up, and stare at their cell phones. If people can’t appreciate the open air and (somewhat) open road, no wonder they hate driving.


Maybe I’m making too big a deal about this. Maybe it’s a stretch to draw a connection between those rolled up windows and the drivers’ dislike of driving. However, I do know that technology could soon make driving a thing of the past, or reduce it to minor operator inputs. Manual transmissions are nearly extinct, engine noises are being “engineered” and piped into cabins through speakers, and cars are taking over the tasks drivers used to do. What happened to the glory of a perfectly executed (unassisted) parallel parking maneuver?


Don’t get me wrong, technology has immensely improved vehicle safety, performance, and fuel economy, but it’s also created a greater disconnect between the driver and the automobile. As the passion for driving diminishes so will the connection people have with their cars and their love of particular car brands. As people become less passionate about their cars, and the associated brands, what will happen to their preference for OEM parts installed by OEM-certified technicians? What will happen to the OEM-customer relationship?


Picture a world in which everyone is commuting in Google’s Driverless Cars. Highway transportation is 100% efficient and every aspect of driving is engineered, connected, mobilized, integrated and optimized. Sound great? Not to me; I’d rather drive.


Bottom Line: The war on driving has begun! Can we stop it? Probably not. But if automobiles do become completely commoditized and “driving” simply becomes “passengering”, the automotive industry as a whole will have to evolve. In the meantime, what we can do is roll down our windows, turn up the radio, and enjoy the open road while we still can!


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