Self-driving cars will soon be upon us. But will they be fun?
Cars are becoming ever more intelligent and aware. They have anti-lock braking systems, electronic stability control, lane departure warning systems, auto-dimming rearview mirrors, headlight beam height control, dual-clutch transmission, automatic start/stop, vehicle-interval radar, and emergency brake assist systems. An automatic park assist system is one example of an autonomous driving feature that most people would agree can be pleasantly convenient.
Design departments and automotive engineers routinely ensure that their cars have more and higher-quality sensors, greater connectivity, software with humanlike reflexes, and intelligent control systems. With these features on board, cars are taking the wheel, so to speak, and driving on their own. But is it fun?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, unlike their human counterparts, electronic control systems are not distracted by music, beautiful scenery, accidents in other lanes, phones, kids in the backseat, or passengers in front. We can therefore expect autonomous vehicles to:
- scan for approaching traffic before changing lanes,
- downshift and accelerate, if needed, to pass trucks (instead of spending an eternity trying to overtake them at essentially the same speed),
- pass tractors promptly as soon as the front radar gives the all-clear, and
- move to the right lane when slower speeds are preferred, in order to free the left lane.
Ideally, autonomous driving systems would provide a smooth, almost sailing sensation because the control units are on high alert, focused at all times on the traffic and immediate surroundings. Driving will become safer and more relaxed.
On the other hand, an autonomous car will hardly be able to drive the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring as commandingly and quickly as Walter Röhrl in a 918 Spyder. Even the cleverest computer lacks that sixth sense: the ability to instantly anticipate the results of different situations or behaviors. And, of course, it cannot match an intuitive feel for thresholds and limits.
At Porsche, sports-oriented driving is part of the essential package—which means an active hand at the wheel. Drivers want to decide for themselves how to control their cars. That means both freedom and responsibility—two values that Porsche embodies.
Porsche drivers can also benefit from park assist or congestion assist systems. Freedom and responsibility do not conflict with safety and convenience. On the contrary, they complement each other perfectly. Who would object to a park assist system that allowed a car to drive itself into the parking garage and then back out again, arriving at the entrance hall of the opera to pick up the driver and passenger?
Porsche is therefore taking a nuanced approach to the matter of autonomous driving, concentrating in the future on individual modules that each customer can select if desired. An assist feature that makes little sense for the majority of 911 drivers, for example, could well be an attractive part of the setup for Panamera customers.
Porsche seeks to offer the best individual solutions with parameters adaptable to each driver. If a route is scanned in advance and matched with GPS data, an autonomous system could make suitable suggestions for the speed, rpm, and gear—in Normal, Sport, or Sport Plus mode, as desired. And we drivers can choose whether to accept what it offers. And that just might give us a little taste of what it’s like to sit in a Porsche with Walter Röhrl.
By Max B. Oertel