Never Stop Driving #3: The open road is dirt

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Happy Friday!

Who doesn’t love getting dirty? I’ve loved off-roading ever since I spent $550 I earned delivering newspapers on a 1983 Kawasaki KDX80 dirt bike. My first taste of freedom was sweet! Lately, I’m again obsessed with dirt thanks to vehicles called side-by-sides (SXS).

The genre started with simple, small utility karts like the John Deere Gator but has exploded with sporting models like the Can Am Maverick X3. I keep up with this fast-growing, quickly evolving industry via UTV Driver, a website run by my friend Zach Bowman. On a road trip a few weeks ago, my son and I met Bowman at an off-road park in eastern Tennessee.

Bowman brought the latest and nuttiest SXS, the Polaris RZR Pro R. It’s basically a Baja racer that anyone can buy for 35 grand, assuming you can find one. I paid $27 for a day pass to Windrock Park and my kid and I strapped into the RZR and hit the trails.

There are few rules and no speed limits. The trails varied from wide open gravel roads and mud pits to rocky climbs that looked impossible to ascend—even for goats. That Polaris is a complete and otherworldly riot. We drifted sideways, soared over jumps, and absorbed bumps I was certain would rip off the front suspension (check out this Hoonigan video of a Pro R jumping). After a few miles of aggressive, flat-out driving, the Polaris bounding over obstacles like they didn’t exist, I’d stop and ask Bowman, “Hey, am I killing this thing?” He’d just shake his head.

Polaris RZR Pro R
The Polaris has over a foot of suspension travel and effortlessly scampered up this hillside. Credit: Larry Webster

We stopped at an overlook and three other machines pulled up. The drivers were all Eastern European immigrants who live in Chicago. They towed their rigs to Tennessee because, as one put it, “I can drive the way I want to here.” I knew what he meant. I’ve dabbled in side-by-sides, renting a couple in West Virginia, where the machines are everywhere. I’m a guy who spends more time preparing to go to the track than actually driving on one, so the accessibility of SXS off-roading is incredibly alluring. I’m in no position to own one, but one day…

GTI Polaris Overlook
An overlook that’s part of the Windrock Trail network near Knoxville, TN. There are over 300 miles of trails of varying difficulty and very few rules. I hope to go back soon. That’s UTV Driver Editor-in-Chief Zach Bowman on the left and my son Sam on the right. Credit: Larry Webster

SXS pioneer John Deere is also developing autonomous tractors. The company has offered autonomous capability for quite a while and now aims to deploy “a complete, full-season-capable autonomous cropping package.” Interestingly, the Deere platform is vision-only, not needing lidar or radar for its slow-speed operations.

It’s a lot easier to make an autonomous tractor that never leaves a field as opposed to one that has to live in the real world. A Cruise autonomous vehicle without a safety driver delayed a fire truck in San Francisco for 25 seconds in an unusual scenario that illustrates the difficulties in programming self-driving cars for unpredictable edge cases. As the fire truck, with lights and siren active, attempted to drive around a double-parked garbage truck (pulling into the opposite-direction travel lane where the Cruise vehicle was operating), it found the Cruise vehicle blocking its path. While the Cruise car correctly identified the fire truck and stopped in its path, it was unable to get out of the way.

Of course, it’s not just autonomous vehicles that sometimes aren’t very good at driving. Autonomous company Pony.ai recently had its permit to operate autonomous vehicles with safety drivers at the wheel revoked by the State of California because its safety drivers weren’t very safe. Many of them having troublesome driving records.

Last week, I discussed the progress in AV trucking development. One of the challenges for autonomous trucking is what to do if something goes wrong, which is why Kodiak is developing a system that determines, every 10 seconds, what and how to stop the truck if systems should suddenly fail. Hmmm. A lot can happen in 10 seconds with a semitruck barreling down the freeway at 75 mph.

And finally, from the “Minority Report” department, the San Francisco Police Department views autonomous cars as roving camera robots that may record evidence to help investigations. Is this a boon to crime fighting or another step towards the surveillance state?

As for me, all I’m thinking about is getting back to the woods. Have a great weekend!

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