Leno: I love to drive, but autonomous vehicles might not be so bad

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Jay Leno's 1955 Buick Roadmaster Jay Leno's Garage

When I bought my Viper in 1992, I remember the salesman saying, “You’ll never see cars with 400 horsepower again.” I believed him! At the time, it didn’t seem like you ever would; 400 horses was so outrageous. Now you have Chevys with 750 horsepower. Not long ago I drove the 2019 ZR1 at GM’s proving ground in Milford, Michigan. We went 204 mph on the track for 50 miles, and the car was rock steady. I’m talking pump gas, street tires, no tricks—just a production Vette. Slowing to 150, I felt like I could get out of the car, it seemed so slow.

The point is that the future has a way of defying prediction. People will tell you what life will be like in 30 years, but history shows that such predictions are usually worth what you pay for them. When my 1955 Buick Roadmaster was built, they thought we would be flying around in atomic saucers by now—saucers with tail fins, mind you—and taking vacations on Venus. You know what? I’m still driving around in that old Buick (granted, with a few modifications). Although the styles have changed and the technology and safety are greatly improved in a 2018 Buick, the Roadmaster still runs on the same fuel, rolls on four round tires, and has the same steering wheel and pedal arrangement. And Venus still doesn’t have any decent parking.

The world is going to change, they say, once electric and autonomous cars are more fully integrated. Maybe. Out on the road, it seems like most cars are autonomous now. People are texting and putting on makeup or watching videos of cats playing the piano—while they’re supposed to pay attention to the road ahead. When we did headlines on The Tonight Show, my favorite was an ad for a guy who invented a laptop holder that fits over your steering wheel. This is somebody who needs the autonomous car.

I talk to a lot of folks who complain that autonomous cars will ruin everything. I say, if you were buying your kid a car, would you buy one for them? Invariably, they say yes, that their kid doesn’t pay attention. I also meet guys who want to buy their teenager a ’65 Mustang like they wanted when they were kids. I tell them their child will die in that car—don’t do it. Have you ever seen an SUV literally in a ball on the freeway and the kid is standing next to it with his cell phone calling his parents? I knew guys in high school who died going 20 mph.

Of course, the engineers will have to get this one right, because in some cars the electronics are already done badly and they’re not even trying to drive the car. My Acura NSX is a fantastic piece, but it has the most distracting, annoying sound system. It’s not much better if I use Apple CarPlay, which takes my eyes off the road too long just working it. Meanwhile, I get in my old 6.3 Mercedes with its manual Blaupunkt radio, and it is crystal clear, comes on the minute I turn on the car, and doesn’t go off when I put it in reverse, as in many modern cars. “Today, the president was assassi…” Wait! What happened?! You won’t find out until you put it in drive again.

What I think is that Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other collectible cars will become the snowmobiles of the next century. You’ll have fun on a weekend zipping around in them, and then during the week, you’ll drive an electric car, and it’ll be fine. Most people won’t notice the difference, except they won’t have to go to a gas station or get an oil change ever again.

Sure, the autonomous car is terrible for people who love to drive, but it’s a boon for those of us who don’t want to get run into by idiots and the inattentive. I ride motorcycles all the time. Up until about 10 years ago, when I approached a stoplight and there was somebody coming the other way, I could look them in the eye and they would look back and there would be an acknowledgment. “OK,” I would think, “he saw me; he knows I’m here.” Now when I ride the bike, people are staring into their laps. I look, but there’s no acknowledgment, and I know they don’t see me.

If an autonomous vehicle stops that man before he hits me, then autonomy can’t come fast enough.

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