Cars are growing too complex, and we're not the first to complain about it. We probably can't stop the rise of the self-driving car, but we need to stop and remember why we first climbed behind the wheel.
On June 12th, 1994, the Boeing 777 made its first flight. It was the most innovative and efficient commercial aircraft to see the skies in the 20th century. The triple seven, just like the Concorde and Space Shuttle, has become a statement of engineering commitment - pushing what's known to be possible. As a species, we've come a long way from Kitty Hawk.
Part of the genius of the 777 was that it was the first commercial aircraft to be designed completely on computer. That meant that every single part could be tested, built, and repaired before it physically existed. That also meant that the flight operation systems could become much more complex, allowing the plane's computers to essentially fly the plane themselves.
I once heard a great quote from one of the lead test pilots on the program: "All the triple seven needs," he said, "is one pilot and a dog. The pilot is there to make sure everything is turned on and working properly, while the dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything."
And that's how the dog will kill hoonage.
Two years ago, I had a conversation with Formula Drift champion Samuel Hübinette. I asked him how he learned to balance a car on the edge, and what made his car control skills superior to those of anyone else. His answer was funny, but not shocking, because it sounds almost exactly like to how I learned to drive: "I would steal my mom's old 240D Mercedes-Benz," Sam said, "and have fun on frozen lakes."
It makes perfect sense. As with any skill, you need to build a foundation. Learning to find the edge at a young age, and in a simple car, is quite literally a crash course in becoming a good driver. We've all done it — it's part of growing up.
That, in turn, brings me back to the dog, the one that bites me every time I try to turn off the traction control in a modern car. The mutt never lets me turn it off completely — I'm always being told no, either because of the car's technology or the cop sitting down the road. And that's why, even though we live in one of the largest driving paradises on the planet, our sons and daughters will grow up to be shit drivers.
It doesn't have to be that way. But thanks to lawmakers, overprotective parents, and insurance companies, manufacturers are forced to dilute the cars that they build. What happened to the days of showcasing the best of what's available? When the first Boeing 707s (then called the Dash-80) hit the skies, test pilot Alvin Johnston performed a barrel roll for a stunned air-show crowd. Even Concorde pilots were known to do barrel rolls as part of their training program. It may seem frivolous, but on a certain level, it was necessary.
But our nanny society will no longer allow for such shenanigans. Modern sports cars and sport sedans have evolved to the point where they simply mimic the feeling of being on the edge without really getting anywhere near it.
There is a solution to this madness. The great cars, the ones that still allow for easy hoonage, are the ones that we see every month at a LeMons race. And that, in turn, brings me to a question: Would you rather drive a fast car slow or a slow car fast?
If you're asking a car enthusiast, the answer to that question will almost always be "slow car fast — reaching the full potential of a car before running out of talent." There's just one problem: Manufacturers still have yet to catch on. Auto shows are continually filled with new shiny cars, none of which tailor to the weekend racer. This is why I find the used car market such an important aspect of our driving culture. We can't stop carmakers from building machines that do our work for us, but we can make the choice to drive more basic cars. We don't need dual-clutch transmissions to go .01 second faster per lap, nor do we need three versions of traction control. Eyes, hands, butt, feet. Those are our controls. That's our stability program.
Open the door, unbuckle the belt, and let the dog go. We need to focus on simple, cheap fun, fun that brings us to the root of what driving is all about — living on the edge. Return to the basics. Go buy your Miatas, your BMW E30s, and your shifter karts. Focus on what matters, and most importantly, get your children involved too. Build their foundation for a future of safe driving. Technology will continue to evolve, but where cars are concerned, if it doesn't serve our purpose, we don't have to accept it. Do not go gentle into that good doghouse. Do not become dependent.
J.F. Musial ponders the state of the automotive industry as an automotive journalist and video producer for FastLaneDaily and his company, TangentVector.
Photo Credit: Boeing PR, F1Fanatic.co.uk