Driving Advocates Want to Keep Humans Behind the Wheel

As many carmakers push into the self-driving space, a contingent of automotive enthusiasts is lobbying to ‘save driving.’

by Jamie L. LaReau, Detroit Free Press / October 19, 2018
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(TNS) — Car enthusiast McKeel Hagerty’s future changed in March 2017.

He was at a car event in Vancouver, British Columbia, when a stranger involved in developing self-driving cars took Hagerty by the elbow, looked him in the eye, and laid forth the future.

“‘I’m putting you out of business,’ he said to me,” Hagerty recalled. “He said, ‘I’m serious. You have to find something else to do.’ Then, he repeated it, ‘I’m putting you out of business.’”

Hagerty, 50, is the CEO of a Traverse City, Mich.-based company that bears his family name. It has 1.5 million car enthusiast members in its Driver’s Club and is the largest U.S. insurer for classic cars.

Stunned, Hagerty thought this stranger was “dead wrong.” But Hagerty called it a “life-changing experience” that prompted him to launch a new mission called Save Driving, aimed at preserving human driving and keeping the car culture alive for future generations as the push toward self-driving cars accelerates.

Hagerty said he wants people-driven cars to share the roads, not surrender them, with robot cars.

“Driving and the car culture are meaningful for a lot of people,” Hagerty said, who still owns the first car he bought 37 years ago for $500. It’s a 1967 Porsche 911S, which he restored with his dad. “We feel the car culture needs a champion.”

Hagerty said he will need 6 million members to have the clout to preserve human driving in the future, but he is not alone in the quest to drum up that support. The Human Driving Association was launched in January and it already has 4,000 members. Both movements have a growing following as many consumers distrust the evolving self-driving car technology, studies show.

Resistance

General Motors’ self-driving vehicle unit, GM Cruise, is running neck-and-neck with Waymo, a subsidiary of Google, to be first to deploy fully autonomous cars for public use, likely as ride sharing. GM said it will do it next year. San Francisco is the proving grounds to refine the technology.

But that race is facing resistance as some people fear losing the freedom of personal car ownership and want to have control of their own mobility. They distrust autonomous technology and they worry about the loss of privacy.

“If you go around in an autonomous vehicle, your movements can be tracked,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research in Ann Arbor.

In Cox Automotive’s Evolution of Mobility study released earlier this year, nearly half of the 1,250 consumers surveyed said they would “never” buy a fully autonomous car and indicated they did not believe roads would be safer if all vehicles were self-driving.

The study showed 68 percent said they would feel “uncomfortable” riding in car driven fully by a computer. And 84 percent said people should have the option to drive themselves even in an autonomous vehicle.

The study showed people’s perception of self-driving cars’ safety is dwindling. When asked whether the roads would be safer if all vehicles were fully autonomous, 45 percent said yes, compared with 63 percent who answered yes in 2016’s study.

“The most resistance comes from the logical places: People age 40 or older,” said Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Cox-owned Kelley Blue Book.

But she said consumers need to realize that most of the crashes involving self-driving vehicles being tested were human drivers hitting the AVs, not the other way around.

“People do need to realize that autonomous driving is here in (human driven) car technology now and it’s continuing to grow,” said Lindland.

Human experience

Proponents for self-driving cars say the cars would offer mobility to those who cannot drive such as disabled people or elderly people. They say the electric self-driving cars would be better for the environment. Finally, roads would be safer with computers driving, they say.

In 2017, the United States had about 40,000 traffic deaths, about 90 percent of which were due to human error, Cox’s study said.

“For younger people,” said Lindland, “The idea of a self-driving car will be an expectation.”

But Hagerty rejects the notion that self-driving cars will one day usurp human-driven cars as fait accompli.

To prove it, Hagerty commissioned a survey of 1,000 millennials in March. The survey queried people ages 22-37 on their feelings about cars and driving. The results showed 81 percent said they “loved” and were “passionate” about cars. Those who held off getting a driver’s license or buying a car cited finances as the reason rather than a lack of interest in cars, he said.

Hagerty also has run two town hall meetings, one in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January and another at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles in June, to discuss with consumers their feelings on preserving people-driven cars for future generations.

“There are a lot of people who can’t imagine a circumstance where you can’t operate a vehicle without human control,” Hagerty said. “A lot of people think of it like property ownership and they have fond memories of road trips they took with their family. For people who are passionate about driving and cars, it goes to being human.”

Augmented help

Alex Roy, an editor for auto industry news site thedrive.com, said he founded the Human Driving Association because he believed the knee-jerk reaction against autonomy was as misguided as the idea that autonomy should be universal.

“People want to go where they want to go when they want to go there, and have privacy and options,” Roy said. “Self-driving has to be an option on human-driven cars.”

He proposes a “third path” what he calls augmented driving, which would allow people the option to drive, but help them do it better.

“It’s a system that would not allow a human to drive into a wall. If I turned the steering wheel toward a wall, the car turns the wheel back the right way,” said Roy. “McKeel and I agree philosophically that human driving is worth preserving, but unless there is a law banning human driving, people are still going to drive.”

That is especially true geographically. For example, in Northern U.S. climates, self-driving cars won’t work well because of snow or heavy rain, Roy said. Or, in Western areas, challenging terrain might stump robots, he said.

Hagerty said with 230 million vehicles in operation in the U.S., it will take decades to replace them with autonomous vehicles. But just in case, Hagerty relaunched its Hagerty Plus car club as newly named Hagerty Driver’s Club. The club has existed for 12 years and has 1.5 million members. It conducts meet-ups for car enthusiasts, driving lessons to teach young people to drive manual transmissions, funds and awards college scholarships, and displays vintage cars and helps resource repairs on vintage cars among other activities.

GM’s 1956 fantasy

The idea to have self-driving cars is not new.

In 1956, GM released an 8-minute promotional film about its Firebird II concept car. In the film, a Leave it to Beaver-like family breaks into song, crooning about the drudgery of traffic jams and driving. Then, the teenage son hits a button on the instrument panel that jettisons them into the future year of 1976, where the Firebird II takes over driving the family. With the car in charge, dad can fire up a cigar (not rolling down the window because the family is enjoying this other new novelty called “air conditioning”), while the car takes them along a congestion-free highway.

The modern evolution of self-driving started in 2003 when Toyota put parking-assist technology on the Prius hybrid sedan, Cox’s study said.

Then in 2009, Google launched its self-driving car project. Four years later, major carmakers GM, Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan started working on the technology. In 2015, Tesla introduced autopilot on its electric cars.

Hands on the wheel

The development and deployment of self-driving vehicles will evolve over decades, observers agree.

But the idea of human-driven cars sharing the roads with some form of autonomous vehicles will happen at some point, they say.

“The next 20 or 30 years, it’s going to be the reality, it’s something we have to deal with,” said Navigant Research’s Abuelsamid. “We have 1 billion cars worldwide on the road today, those won’t be displaced by autonomous vehicles overnight. They will have to co-exist, unless we mandate that everyone has to give up their cars and use autonomous vehicles.”

That’s the situation Hagerty and Roy don’t want to leave to chance. Hagerty said he is well-versed on self-driving cars and he thinks they are “exciting” and necessary.

“They answer a big problem for those living and commuting in cities,” said Hagerty. “But the pleasure of driving up Highway 1 along the coast of California and sitting in the back seat of a car is not the same to me. The pleasure to me is having my hands on the steering wheel.”

For that reason, “We’re putting ourselves in a position where, if driverless cars happen, we position ourselves differently than the horse crowd did a hundred years ago,” where it saw horseback riding becoming a limited hobby for a select few, said Hagerty. “We want to do something about it now.”

©2018 Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.