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by David Cipolloni
March 7, 2007


Will the Z06 Corvette someday drive itself?

The invention of the electric starter motor did have its appeal. Electric headlamps sure did make driving at night a bit safer. Pneumatic tires were a lot easier on the back and kidneys. And let’s not forget the essentials like a closed cockpit, windscreen and even windscreen wipers. The automotive industry was on a roll.

But is there a point when a vehicle is just too good, and way more than anyone needs? Do you need your car to parallel park itself? How about distance control? What about air conditioned seats? Maybe when we get to the point where we no longer have to drive the car we will finally be happy. You will simply get in, set a destination point, and sit back and enjoy the ride. A nice Latte, copy of the NY Times, and a recliner. Maybe you can even sleep until you reach your destination. Now that I think of it this sounds a lot like public transportation.

It seems that the competitive nature of the automotive industry has caused the engineering staff to work overtime. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating we ignore progress, I am simply implying we might want to look at what we really enjoy about our driving experiences. Many new cars are so quiet, so comfortable, so smooth, and so convenient, we almost fall asleep driving them. The adventure of going out onto the road is, well,……not so adventurous.

Remember when going 80 mph seemed really fast? These days the lowest cost econoboxes can do that all day without breaking a sweat. I know safety is an issue, and I don’t advocate going back to bias ply tires, but what happened to the adventure of the open road? A time when you actually had to DRIVE the car. There were no antilock brakes, dynamic stability control, electronic brake force distribution, etc. to save your ass. There was no electronic throttle to slow you down. By George you could do a one-eighty on an exit ramp quicker than you can say hit the ONSTAR button.

There was a time when you could appreciate the sound of the engine, take notice of the spacing of gear ratios the engineers had selected for the transmission, observe the balance of the vehicle during various maneuvers and declining radius cornering. The things about driving that excited the senses, things that made cars like the BMW 2002, the VW Rabbit GTI, and others so appealing.

Back then you could drive a car to its limit, hang the tail end out, run the engine to redline between shifts, and bring it back with the brakes smoldering. Try that nowadays and you’ll be going so fast you’ll see 8 to 10 in the state pen. The new cars are good, much too good for most drivers to challenge them, and thus incorporate computer technology to make up for driver inability. You can push many new cars to the limit without much regard for skill, after all the car will save you.

So, how do we enjoy driving again? Is it too late? The cars just seem to be getting better. Maybe the cars won’t need us much longer. Where do we fit in? We already know the onboard computers on many new cars are capable of recording our evil deeds. Try telling the judge you were going slow because you had a bowl of goldfish on the seat, all the while the prosecution is presenting the data from your onboard computer that indicates the vehicle speed at 140 mph, and the engine speed at 7,000 rpm’s……………Bailiff, take him away.

Are new cars so good they take the driver out of the equation?

There could be a light at the end of the tunnel for the true driving enthusiast. It’s really about how we approach designing our cars. There is little adventure in driving most of the high end automobiles on the market today. I have driven most of them and have always been impressed at how good they are, much too good for me. You see, I’m not trying to impress the neighbors, it really does me no good. I just want to have fun driving my car.

Let’s take a look at what we need in a car in order to have some fun driving it.

• The engine should rev freely and produce enough power to move the car along briskly. This does not mean a rocket ship with 400 horsepower.
• There needs to be a manual transmission, not automatic, not SMG. In this way you actually have to play a role in getting the car moving, it connects you to the car.
• The seat must be just right, comfortable, good bolstering, a lengthened lower seat cushion, and the proper lower back support.
• The ergonomics in the car need to be as such that they put things at hand so as not to detract from driving.
• The car needs to be tossable and nimble, without too much body roll.
• The car needs to be relatively quiet for extended drives and enjoyment of sound systems.
• The car needs to have a somewhat upright seating position to allow for good all around visibility and low levels of fatigue.
• The car needs to track properly on the road, not wander about the lane. Wandering causes fatigue, and fatigue is no fun.
• The gearing needs to be such that it easily keeps the engine in its sweet spot during spirited driving. When done right this can be an absolute pleasure.
• The car should make you feel brave, and allow you to exercise your ability to control it. The car should feel as an extension of your body, you should control it, not the other way around.

We can have these things in our cars, along with air conditioning, power windows/locks, cruise control, and some other basic necessities. We can drive these cars to work, or to the mall, out to dinner, or on a trip, and have some fun along the way. We don’t need power shades, automatic parking systems, air conditioned glove boxes, and double dipsy bars. We need cars that are pleasing to the eye, fun to drive, and economical. If you want to impress the neighbors go do some volunteer work at the local hospital, or be a mentor to a young person trying to find himself/herself. 

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