Driving a car lost its magic

Here you can read this article in German.

I don’t own a car. A few days ago I went on a little road trip with a rental car, and it opened my eyes.

Two things were different than in the past: Firstly, there has been massive progress within the field of self-driving and intelligent cars over the past years and months. I have never been reading and learning as much about the advancements as during recent times, simply because the topic is ubiquitous nowadays.

My trip has taught me that the frequent occupation with the question of self-driving cars has actually shaped me a lot: I was looking much more critical on my own driving as well as on the driving of other road users. I was seeing the role of the human factor in driving through a totally different perspective: the risky passing maneuvers on roads with only one lane per direction. The aggressiveness of certain drivers. The driving mistakes which fortunately did not ended up ugly. All of a sudden it felt completely anachronistic to me to see how humans try to control these heavy, many dozens of horse powers-powered metal cages on wheels with such a confidence. A misplaced confidence of course. We all know how many accidents happen every day, leading to injured and casualties.

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The second different thing was that this time, I was driving around in a car which one might label “intelligent”. And I am not talking about the fancy and sophisticated Autopilot features that one can find in Tesla’s Model S or some other luxury cars. Even for owners of a state-of-the-art midsize car, my excitement about today’s quasi-standard features such as automatic adjustment of cruise control based on the distance to cars in front of you, visual alerts when other cars are in the blind spot, or suggestions made by the car software to take a break after hours of driving, must sound amusing. Probably like how I would feel when hearing about the impressions of someone in 2016 who has tried their first smartphone ever.

But yes, never before did I have received so much support during driving by the car I was sitting in. Additionally, this time I specifically booked a car with automatic transmission, which still is a rarity in Europe. In the past I would have been against that just as a principle. Now I am wondering why one still voluntarily would want to deal with the stick-shift.

For the first time since I got my driver’s license about 15 years ago, I was sitting behind the steering wheel appreciating how much of driving had been automated, particularly on freeways and rural roads. Me, who previously looked forward to getting the chance to drive like a child looks forward to Christmas!

This little trip made me realize how following the reports about progress and breakthroughs in autonomous driving and the accompanying debate have drastically changed my own view of driving. I certainly still find pleasure in taking an active part in driving. Yet, once one has moved on from the idea that the only crucial criteria for questions related to the future of a safe, sustainable and smart automobile should be driving pleasure, at least for me a lot of the magic of driving a car has vanished. I am not very sad about it. Which actually surprises me the most.

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