About 40 years ago, Road & Track published a neat little piece of automotive fiction called “A Nice Morning Drive.” It was a dystopian look at the future of classic car ownership, told through the eyes of an MGB driver named “Buzz.” In this future, new cars had gotten ugly, slow and ponderous, but so safe, (able to withstand 75 mph head-on collisions) that there were few consequences of being careless or distracted behind the wheel. Some maliciously bored drivers even went looking for older cars, (like Buzz’s MGB) to harass. Unable to co-exist with these “Modern Safety Vehicles,” drivers of classics simply gave up and put them away for good.
While the story was a decent yarn – a cautionary tale about a future where there was no place for classics on the road – it missed predicting the rise of the autonomous vehicle or “AV.” In all fairness, who could have foreseen the irony at work here? As the automotive industry builds the best drivers’ cars ever, in parallel, it’s also developing technology designed to dispense with drivers altogether.
But do AVs spell the eventual doom for the notion of owning and using the cars we enjoy? Perhaps not. The current automotive golden age personified by 707 hp Mopar Hellcats and 650 hp Camaro ZL1s might eventually peter out with a whimper, as demand for non-autonomous cars as primary transportation slackens. But if it does play out that way, it’s going to leave a legacy of some incredible cars that will make the classic car scene of around 2050 pretty damned rich.
Autonomous vehicles are coming sooner than anyone realizes, practical ones are perhaps just five to ten years away. And in fact, the whole paradigm of vehicle ownership might change with the rise of vehicle sharing apps like Maven and Zipcar. GM and Ford are already touting themselves as “mobility” companies rather than car builders.
But are these changes inherently bad for people who care about driving? Frankly, I wouldn’t care if my characterless morning commute eventually became an automated affair. It wouldn’t even bother me too much if one day, high-density roads like Detroit’s I-96 became off-limits to my Lotus Elan, given the fact that the only task it can perform autonomously is to leak fluids from every orifice. Interstates aren’t the reason we own the cars that we do, and does anyone really think that roads like the San Juan Skyway, Tail of the Dragon and Mulholland Raceway are ever going to be overrun by autonomous vehicles? Fat chance, they’ll become the exclusive preserves of autonomous resisters like us.
So, I think we needn’t fear that autonomous vehicles will push our cars off of the roads that we care about driving. And if on-demand car services like Maven and Zipcar mean that we can dispense with the burden of owning, maintaining and insuring a daily driver, then I say fine – more money to spend on cars that we care about.
Frankly, I’m not even certain that the advent of autonomous cars will actually end the latest golden age of automotive performance. Niche products like muscle cars, sports cars and off-road vehicles will probably survive well into the autonomous era. Let the SUVs, minivans and Priuses go on permanent autopilot, but I think there’s always going to be a small but serviceable demand for driver’s cars, even if the law says that they have to be capable of operating autonomously while on certain roads.
As for the collector car movement, I have no doubt that it’s in for a great run for the foreseeable future. A few decades years from now, the Challenger Hellcats and Camaro ZL1s will be high-dollar, sought after collectibles. Just like the Millennial generation overtook the baby boomers in sheer size, I think the universe of the cars they’re going to want when they reach their 50s and 60s is going to dwarf what Boomers and Gen-Xers had to choose from in numbers and quality. There are just that many spectacular, highly desirable cars being built today.
And there will be people around who care. That Millennials don’t care about cars seems like a fallacy perpetuated by cranky, “get off my lawn” boomers. The hardcore of the under-thirty crowd, raised on games like Forza and Gran Turismo, are just as rabid as any Boomer or Gen-Xer. Yeah, some Millennials are militantly blasé about cars, but true car people have always been in the minority anyway. So what if the indifferent majority has already moved on from driving and automobile ownership as a symbol of freedom and mobility? Let them enjoy their AV pods. Just stay the hell out of our way.