Never Stop Driving #13: The big one

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A recent video shows the autonomous nightmare: The robotic driver sends a big rig into a wall while the safety driver helplessly tries to stop it. The video explains that a potential whistleblower shared the in-cab video with YouTube’s “The Asian Mai Show—Official Trucking Channel.”

I’m no expert, but it appears that the driver flipped a switch and the steering wheel immediately spun, so the truck veered left and into the center median. While the driver fights the wheel and shouts a few colorful profanities, the passenger remains uncannily cool, the Michael Corleone of safety monitors. I can kid here because thankfully no one was hurt, but many commenters cried foul that autonomous trucks are being tested on public roads.

Vehicle makers routinely test in real-world conditions, because there’s no other way to simulate the chaos that occurs daily on our roads (I know, dear reader, that you’re an exemplar driver, but the rest out there? Sheesh.) Even long-proven mechanical systems routinely fail, like the brakes of this restomod.

People are concerned about the safety of autonomous systems, which is natural given the sometimes odd behavior of our personal computers. You know the joke, how does one “CTL-ALT-DLT” from behind the wheel? A Pew survey showed that women are more skeptical of self-driving cars than men are. For example, only three in ten women believe autonomous vehicles will reduce traffic fatalities, while 49% of men do. 54% of women surveyed would not feel comfortable sharing the road with an autonomous vehicle, while 35% of men said the same.

Partly in response to this, GM President Mark Reuss penned a column on LinkedIn discussing GM’s approach to self-driving deployment and how it’s ensuring safety, while simultaneously taking some not-so-veiled swipes at Tesla—he notes that GM is integrating multiple sensor technologies (Tesla uses mainly cameras, rather than radar and lidar) as well as head-tracking and driver-attention systems like in-cabin cameras.

Speaking of Tesla, the California DMV accused Tesla of falsely advertising its cars as autonomous. I think this is a long time coming, as I subscribe to this simple autonomous test: If you can’t sleep when behind the wheel, then the car is not fully autonomous. (Full disclosure, this isn’t my idea, but Alex Roy’s). The solution is simple: Stop calling driver-assist systems “Autopilot.”

Bob Lutz, one of the most enthusiastic car executives to ever occupy a board room, used to be very critical of Tesla. In this interview, Lutz, now 90, acknowledges his criticism and also that Elon Musk has succeeded. I’ve known Bob for years and he is an amazing human, confident but also self-aware and never shy to alter his thinking or admit mistakes when new evidence emerges.

When I was at Road & Track, I hired Bob to write an advice column and answer questions. One of RT’s writers who once worked at the satirical paper The Onion, John Krewson, came up with a brilliant title for the column: Go Lutz Yourself. I imagined our mostly male audience asking Bob questions not just about cars, but about personal and working life. Bob Lutz could be the perfect bartender, quick with useful and succinct advice. He delivered in spades, writing his answers by hand, with graceful penmanship, in tight, clear paragraphs. We rarely had to change a word, as Lutz is a gifted writer.

The readers, however, never caught on and asked Lutz mundane questions like “Hey, Bob, do I really need to change my oil every 3000 miles?” I was, frankly, surprised. Didn’t they understand the great business mind they had access to? Why waste the opportunity with questions about tire rotation? I guess car magazine readers at the time were simply so mechanically minded they weren’t interested in tangential material even if supplied by someone like Lutz, who enjoyed an enviable career in both Europe and America at the top levels of multiple automakers. The man definitely knows how to squeeze every possible pleasure out of life. No wonder his nickname is Maximum Bob.

An article in The Atlantic laments that the gearbox favored by Lutz and most of us, the manual transmission, is on a path to extinction. As of this writing, the piece is the most popular one on its website.

I’d like to read into that and think that it means everyone appreciates shifting yourself as much as we do. Articles on the death of the manual, however, regularly appear in mainstream media. I think a lot of the readers have nostalgia for the art of shifting yourself but no desire to return to it.

The Atlantic piece mentioned Matt Crawford’s excellent book Why We Drive, and how he so eloquently explained the joy of a man and machine connection. I would have appreciated a plug for our book, Never Stop Driving, now in audio format, and the author might have pointed out that Hagerty holds some 40 events each year to teach folks how to drive a stick shift. Don’t waste any opportunity to remind the general public that cars enrich our lives, I say.

You can help. Run your own stick shift seminar. I regularly teach local kids how to drive a manual and I love explaining to parents that kids can’t hold a phone if they have to row a transmission. Spread the word. One could even buy a cheap car for the purpose like this Corolla I found on the Hagerty Marketplace.

Speaking of buying and finding old cars, have you watched the Hagerty series Barn Find Hunter? Host Tom Cotter travels the country and finds amazing cars long lost in barns and garages. In a recent episode, he found a long dormant 1963 Corvette near Nashville and talked to the owner, who has a delicious Southern accent. The show, now in its seventh year, is part car education, part travel, part culture, part American Pickers. Give it a watch and let us know what you think.

And get out and drive your stick shift car this weekend.

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