On the one hand, this isn’t an entirely surprising proclamation coming from the CEO of the company behind cars with “no substitute.” Porsche is, and always has been, about as pure and distilled a form of automotive perfection as has ever been made. And while the same could arguably be said for the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and other divine works of metallurgy and engineering, no other marque has married together race car finesse with every day driving practicality and reliability with such virtuosity. So CEO Oliver Blume’s claim that “one wants to drive a Porsche by oneself” and that “an iPhone belongs in your pocket and not on the road” is a bold — not to mention cheeky — but admittedly fair point. Arguably, an autonomous Porsche sounds about as sensible as an autonomous horse.
But is the looming horizon of autonomous cars necessarily antithetical to the very essence of driving as an art, for pleasure, for sport, and for just plain fun?
With all due respect to Mr. Blume, I’m not sure that it is. And a simple analogy will hereby spare you one of my usual lengthy pieces. (UPDATE: Or not.)
Once upon a time, Porsche said it would never build an SUV. Or a transmission without a third pedal to manually work the clutch. Or, for that matter, a front-engined car. Not to mention hybrids. Or — gasp! — diesels! Frankly, it’s a wonder Porsche enthusiasts — and all automobile purists around the world — didn’t cry out when Porsche elected to install ABS and traction control. Actually, they probably did. And yet, we now have Porsches with adaptive cruise control, too.
It makes no sense to build a 190 mph-capable car that is then all but neutered to just one-third its top speed in most of the world.
The point is, all these things and more have arguably diluted the raw driving experience over the years, sure. But to make this argument, given the various technologies’ indisputable success with increasing both performance and safety, one would also need to argue that speed limits and other driving laws don’t make any sense, either. Or, conversely, that it makes no sense to build a 190 mph-capable car that is then all but neutered to just one-third its top speed in most of the world, Germany excepted. Otherwise, why are we even allowed to buy cars that can so easily break the speed limit? After all, a high performance sports car whose performance cannot be extracted on public roads is different only in degree to a high performance sports car whose performance cannot be utilized at all on public roads, never mind only at the higher end of its performance threshold.
The answer is context. But to understand the context, let’s first define some upper and lower bounds.
Let’s define the lower bound as horses and buggies. Let’s define the upper bound as fully autonomous cars. The fact is, our society is moving not-so-slowly and inexorably towards that upper bound. Meanwhile, however, we’re in a sort of messy transitory state. Transitory because, well, we’re in transit from human-driven to autonomous cars, and messy, because things in transit tend to be precisely that: not only must the technology evolve to provide the very thing being changed, but society, culture, and of course laws must change to keep up as well.
At this point, we’re accustomed to laws that disallow us from driving however fast or recklessly we want. But once upon a time, these laws didn’t exist, either.
At the start of 2016, we’re just seeing the first signs of sunlight from the dawn of the autonomous car era. At this point, we’re accustomed to laws that disallow us from driving however fast or recklessly we want. But once upon a time, these laws didn’t exist, either. People could take their Ford Model Ts wherever they wished; roads were little more than dirt paths; and it took time for laws to catch up and temper people’s use of those early automobiles.
(We’ve seen a similar thing with cell phone driving laws: I grew up as part of the first generation to have cell phones. The notion that we were suddenly not allowed to talk while driving seemed outrageous (texting, sure; but talking?). But for the generation of kids growing up today, it makes pretty obvious sense: distracted driving is indeed dangerous, full stop.)
The point is, just as we no longer allow horses and buggies plodding about our streets, we will one day no longer allow human-driven cars on our streets. They’re simply too dangerous. Period. But just as we can still enjoy horses for entertainment, so we’ll still be able to enjoy human-driven cars for entertainment, too. Similarly, today, although we cannot drive as fast as we like on public roads, we’re still free to stretch the legs of our cars on private race tracks to our heart’s content.
And so it will be with Porsches: one day — some time around 2060-2080*, I imagine — human-driven cars will gradually be phased out from legal operation on most public roads — certainly dense urban areas and freeways. So to declare unilaterally that the availability of autonomous technology is antithetical to Porsche’s DNA is not only illogical, it is futile: it is indisputable, it is unavoidable, that one day all cars will be required to have fully autonomous capability. Including Porsche. It’s not about if, but rather when.
But you certainly gotta admire Porsche’s spirit and give Mr. Blume credit.
* Check out the video clip below. I’ve queued it up to start at about the 8:40 mark. Elon Musk is breaking down the math for how long it would take to replace all cars and trucks in the world with electric vehicles (bear with me to see how this relates to autonomous vehicles). Since there are nearly 2.5 billion vehicles on the road today, and the total output of all vehicles is about 100 million per year, it would take about 25 years to completely replace the entire fleet of Earth’s vehicles if output instantly switched to 100% electric vehicles today.
Musk then goes on to explain that, since we’ll need fewer fully autonomous vehicles to replace all 2.5 billion vehicles (due to the obvious application of car sharing programs almost guaranteed with the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles), it would theoretically take a bit less time, say, 20 years.
Obviously though, the entire planet’s output of vehicles is not shifting to 100% electric — let alone autonomous vehicles — over night, but rather, they will be gradually phased in, albeit at faster and faster rates, beginning in earnest in the mid-2020s. So add in some margin of delay of a few decades, and you’re looking at roughly 2060-2080, and certainly by 2100, for a time when human-driven cars — let alone gasoline-powered cars — are all but rendered illegal on most public roads.
And while this may seem long a time way from now, it really isn’t: I will surely live into the 2060s and probably even the 2070s, and most babies born today will make it to 2100.
It’s a great interview, and I encourage you to watch the entire thing.