Europe’s love of cars is best showcased at the news stand. There, dozens of specialist car magazines call out to enthusiasts who’ve grown up relishing the feel of the steering wheel in their hands. So, what happens when that steering wheel disappears, and control is handed over to a computer?
So much of what an automotive brand stands for is tied up in the relationship between driver and car – particularly for premium and sportscar brands. How the car reacts to steering inputs is one of the key interfaces that determines how the owner feels about their car.
If the brand promises a sporty drive, then even small movements at the helm will be quickly transmitted to the front wheels, giving the driver the sense of absolute control. Remove the steering wheel, and you remove the point of a sporting car entirely. Everything that made it alive in your hands – the taut suspension, the quick steering – is just uncomfortable when the driving is handed over to a computer. The focus is now on comfort and relaxation.
This is clearly understood by those affected. “The Porsche sports car will be one of the last automobiles with a steering wheel,” Lutz Meschke, Porsche’s head of finance, has said.
BMW, meanwhile, has never shown an autonomous concept car without a steering wheel – even when the car is looking deep into the future. Its Vision iNext SUV, shown earlier this year, featured a wheel that retracted in ‘2Ease’ autonomous mode. At Daimler, it took its urban Smart brand to finally drop the steering wheel – for its 2017 autonomous Vision EQ model, an on-demand two-seater called up via an app.
Premium automakers prefer BMW’s approach – to imagine a world where autonomous driving co-exists with traditional methods of control. Let the car deal with humdrum journeys but hand over to the driver when the roads get interesting. This means the car needs a split personality – cosseting and distracting when in autonomous mode; responsive and focused when in manual mode.
Bentley showed how that might work with its recent EXP 100 GT electric coupe concept. The owner can choose between autonomous and manual mode and the car reacts accordingly. For example, the ‘biometric’ seating can deliver more support to the driver and even reduce comfort to give the driver more of a sense of ‘oneness’ with the car. Switch to autonomous mode, however, and the seats return to their plush state and can be swivelled around.
Peugeot explored the same idea with its 2018 E-Legend coupe concept, which Autocar magazine called the ‘acceptable face of autonomous driving’. The styling of the car harked back to elegant, sporty coupes of the 1970s, and, like the Bentley, offered distinct modes for when the owner is being driven or doing the driving themselves. Peugeot understood that driving pleasure isn’t just about pushing the
car to its limits but is also nostalgic. So ‘cruising’ mode changes the content of the digital screens to display retro dials set within a wood-effect dashboard.
The question remains whether people will still be allowed to drive cars when the autonomous alternative becomes widespread. The technology is far from ready to encompass all roads, so that debate is still to come. Certainly, for the technology to take off it would need to be able to deal with conventionally driven cars.
The problem comes in a future when statistics begin to show that autonomous cars are safer than their conventional counterparts. The ‘moral imperative’ of autonomous cars will be to reduce the number of deaths from road traffic crashes – currently around 1.35 million a year according to the World Health Organisation – and governments could be forced to enact bans.
What looks most likely is that the status of the human-driven car moves from necessity to hobby. Tesla CEO Elon Musk drew a comparison with the horse: “People have horses, which is cool. There will be people who have non-autonomous cars, like people have horses. It would just be unusual to use that as a mode of transport,” he said.
Specialist automakers like Lotus will survive, its CEO believes, thanks to customers who’ll want to spend their leisure time driving sports cars. “That won’t be a small number of people,” Phil Popham said at the recent launch of the Evija electric hypercar.
Lotus envisages autonomous technology helping, likely within the security of a closed racetrack. “Think about all the cameras and sensors that will create an autonomous car,” Popham said. “You could press a Lotus button and use all that technology to actually have an expert sat next to you, to tell you how to get the most out of your car.”
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