A new year is a natural time to ponder. And to catch up on your reading. I was struck by the letters to the editor section of more than a few club magazines that featured impassioned pleas and cancelled subscriptions surrounding topics such as driver's aids and the elimination of the manual shifter, and intrusive safety systems. It caused me to wonder. Is the driver now reduced to just a problematic component responsible for ham-fisted (and ham-footed) inputs and dangerous bouts of distraction? Are ABS, traction control, lane departure warning, and rev matching paddle shifting, all just attempts to design around this faulty component? is a driverless car the answer? Is driving a stick shift a skill whose time has passed, the equivalent of being competent with a slide rule?
I have no research that identifies the number of people we call "enthusiasts", but I am inclined to think it is a relatively low number. And, there are plenty of enthusiasts who embrace all facets of progress, so this is not the very narrow definition favored by some. I like to consider myself an enthusiast, so it pains me to accept that it is not a big enough market segment to sway the finance and marketing experts at most automotive manufacturers. Except, that is, at the very top of the market where the number of cylinders is matched by the number of zeroes in the price, and at a few companies that value the enthusiast voice that is their bread and butter. But even there in some cases, you are confronted with paddle shift only, and a nineteen step process to turn off traction control. in every bad SciFi movie where the machines take over, it is based on them viewing the humans as flawed error-prone machines who need to be "upgraded". Is this the inexorable march of progress and technology? Is it the global nanny state run amuk ? Is it the dumbing-down of everything to the lowest common denominator? Are the machines alive? Well yes and no.
Yes, because even the most recalcitrant luddite among us wants some of the technological improvements developed over time. Want cable-operated drum brakes on your Veyron sir? Can I interest you in a hand-operated camshaft oiler for your M3, conveniently placed so that your riding mechanic can operate it? What about a hand-crank starter for your new Carrera? Few will argue that they can shift faster/better than Paddles or an automatic Corolla in sport mode for that matter. Few will argue that 4WD will get you around the track faster. Few will argue that the lowliest of economy boxes is safer and more fuel efficient than anything from a few decades earlier. We only have two feet, so why three pedals? Is an F1 driver barred from being an enthusiast because they drive a paddle-shift car? You need so-called "driver aids" because even if you are an extraordinary driver, the person in the lane next to you is not. Do you want the slightly hungover guy in the left lane texting his boss that he is running late to have lane departure warning? You betcha. While sitting at a light on your motorcycle, do you want the fast-approaching SUV driver behind you to have collision avoidance? Yessiree. So yes, we are much better off, and the enthusiasts should shut their pie holes and go make some new cave drawings.
No, because all of that misses the point. If you really want to eliminate the faulty component that is the driver, then Disney already answered that decades ago with the driverless monorail. The reason for M5 wagons and Porsche Carreras and Mercedes Black Series, is that the objective is not just a safe, fuel-efficient, conveyance from point A to point B. The finance and marketing folks know this, which is why we have mini-vans with the word Sport on them, and turbo-charged Dodge Omnis. Driving is more than mindless wasted time getting somewhere. That is the mentality that has lead to infotainment-laden Spas on wheels, and texting while driving. For the enthusiast, it is more than that. It is a destination unto itself. It is a brief moment in an eternity of constraints and demands when you have at least some control over the controls. It is the therapy of the long twisty way home. It is a blast on a weekend morning with the crew. It is knocking 0.8 seconds off your lap time. It is cruising on a spectacular mountain road with no guard rails. It is the hum of a perfectly tuned engine on the interstate. It is the art of dancing beautifully with the machine that is your partner. It is the feedback of sound and vibration and smell and sight that tells you everything you need to know. It is one supposedly inert set of atoms communicating with another sentient set of atoms. It must, therefore, be interactive and provide the driver with the means to tailor the experience to his/her liking. It must evoke emotions. It must require some effort, some knowledge, some investment. How much is for each individual to determine, but they should have some choices available.
Those that love vintage iron may understand this best. Of course there is a more modern alternative that is better on any objective scale, and of course a machine can perform rote repetitive tasks flawlessly forever. But that is not always the objective. I have an idea. Let's raise the standards for a driver's license, commission Disney to build infotainment-laden monorails down the center median for the masses who fail, and leave the roads and cars and motorcycles to the driving and riding enthusiasts. Who's with me?