Why I’ll willingly hand over my steering wheel

When someone hears that I test-drive and review cars for a living, their response is often: “Wow! Cool job!” Lately, though, I might also mention that I’m increasingly intrigued by the arrival of computer-operated, autonomous vehicles (AVs)—cars that require no driver at all. And then the response is always: “What?! You? Mr. Motorhead? That’s a joke, right?”

No joke. I know, I know. Coming from a man whose blood type is “high octane,” just mentioning the words “no driver” borders on blasphemy. 

But here’s the thing: I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life focused on automobiles, the vast and varied world of driving, the science and statistics of humans functioning behind the wheel. In the past decade, I’ve also conducted deep dives into the increasingly sophisticated technologies that may well redefine the word “car,” spoken at length with many of the leading figures behind the transformation, sampled the driverless frontier first-hand. Is it a game-changer? Absolutely. Is it 100-percent prime-time ready right now? Nope. Not even the most ardent autonomy booster would claim as much. 

That said, the leading edge is advancing exponentially. Already, AVs from pioneering makers like San Francisco-based Cruise have successfully logged millions of driverless, public-roads miles—though operating within specific parameters and limited environments. If that still sounds “on the drawing board” to you, take a peek at the gleaming wonder-widget that is the smartphone in your pocket and be reminded of how quickly once-fledgling technologies can become integral, even essential components of our daily lives. Which is to say, the AV revolution is coming. It’s just a question of “when.” 

And, yes, I’m intrigued—impatient, even. Why? Because—pardon me while I utter more blasphemy—autonomous vehicles hold the promise of a driving experience that’s actually better.

Make no mistake: I’m an avowed auto enthusiast. Passionate about the world of wheels. Giddy about great cars. For years, in print and on-camera, I’ve extolled the countless and transcendent joys to be had at the wheel: the sizzling howl of a Chevy Corvette Stingray nipping the curves of California’s sun-kissed Pacific Coast Highway, the rush of blasting down Germany’s high-speed autobahn in a powerful Mercedes coupe, the incomparable vistas that arise while creepy-crawling a Jeep through tight, twisting trails in the Colorado Rockies. Out on the open road, you and your machine and the ever-unfolding horizon leading you anywhere you want to go … well, to my mind that’s what cars are all about. Freedom you can actually feel.

Here I need to make an important distinction, though. The driving experience I speak of above and when reviewing cars for enthusiast magazines is unapologetically romantic. It’s the “Hollywood” version—a responsive chassis, a brilliantly tuned engine, and artful bodywork cruising under idyllic skies; no traffic, no distractions to blunt the good vibes flowing through your synapses. It is the automobile as liberation

Then there’s the automobile every one of us—car journalists included—knows all too well, the one stuck in gridlock, the one swerving to avoid drivers too distracted to focus on the road, the one nearly sideswiped on the Interstate by yet another speeding, weaving fool determined to slice two minutes off his commute. That’s the automobile as transportation

It is the latter paradigm I’m confident can be better-served by AVs.

Consider a few numbers. According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2022 nearly 43,000 people lost their lives in U.S. traffic crashes. Think about that for a moment. That’s almost 3,600 men, women, and children dead every single month. That’s roughly the equivalent of four airliner crashes every week. Would Americans willingly fly knowing for certain that more than 800 of their number would die in passenger jets that week? Not a chance. But get behind the wheel facing the same horrifying body count? “Hey, it’s the price we have to pay.”

I respectfully but vehemently disagree with that sentiment. Look, you can “prettify” the picture by slicing-up the stats any way you want—deaths per mile, hours on the road, the aftershocks of COVID-19, pointing to occasional downward blips on the “Awfulness Charts.”

To which I will simply repeat: 43,000 needless deaths. Plus a serious-injuries count in the millions.

Without question, the numbers would be far, far worse if elected officials and auto engineers had done nothing over the years (fatalities are actually down from the carnage of the late 1960s–despite the fact that vehicle miles traveled have nearly tripled). The U.S. Department of Transportation and state governments alike tout myriad infrastructure “countermeasures” deployed to lessen the risks: increased road repairs, roundabouts instead of four-way intersections, straightening tight curves, elimination of railway-crossing hazards, improved traffic patterns, etc. Similarly, the world’s automakers have unveiled impressive active-safety devices on their new models: lane-keeping systems, forward-collision warnings, pedestrian-detection technology, automatic braking, and much more.

I applaud all of it. And yet still we’re left with 43,000 dead.

How could that be? Because one crucial element hasn’t changed: drivers. It’s the human at the wheel, sad to say, that remains the automobile’s single weakest link.

“But not me!” Oh, I can hear the outraged voices from here. Because, of course, the “bad driver” on the road is always “the other guy.” Allow me to share an insight I’ve gleaned from many, many hours riding shotgun with the finest drivers on the planet—Formula 1 world champions, Le Mans winners, NASCAR superstars. The gulf between them and everyone else is wider than the Grand Canyon. Don’t kid yourself, Mario. You will never be able to operate an automobile at their level. Drivers? Ha. They’re magicians. They can perform tricks with four wheels that will leave mere mortals literally gasping for breath.

But here’s the funny thing: On more than a few occasions, these titans of the track have confessed to me, in private, that driving on public roads … scares them. “Too unpredictable.” “So much going on; I don’t enjoy being out there.” And here’s the one that always gets me: “To be honest, I’m not sure my skills are up to it.”

Whoa. If the greatest racing drivers on the planet say that, how are the rest of us supposed to deal with the big, bad world outside the garage?

You read my mind: autonomous vehicles.

To be clear, I’m not talking about current advanced driver-assist systems where, say, the car takes control of the gas and brakes and steering and “drives itself” on the highway (while the human driver allegedly remains in constant readiness to take back control if necessary). No. I’m talking about cars without a steering wheel at all. No pedals. Not even a driver’s seat. Instead, just a few big, comfortable passenger seats and, maybe, large green “go” and red “stop” buttons so the humans inside still feel in charge. That’s a fully autonomous vehicle—what the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) calls “Level 4” (fully automated under most conditions) or “Level 5” (fully automated under all conditions). The vehicle does 100 percent of the driving. The people are just along for the ride.

No, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. There are still daunting hurdles to overcome. Among them:

  1. Reliability. The systems necessary for an autonomous vehicle to “see” and react to its environment are highly complex and, for now at least, far from “automotive-grade” in terms of all-weather, day-in-day-out, long-term functionality. A snowstorm, for instance, could seriously degrade an AV’s “vision” (hence, most real-world AV testing is being conducted in generally favorable climates like Phoenix and San Francisco).
  2. Cyber security. An autonomous vehicle and the computer network it constantly  communicates with must be virtually impervious to tampering. The risks of anything less are obvious. A total loss calculator aids in evaluating the financial outcome post-accident, guiding insurance and safety decisions.
  3. Artificial intelligence. Right now the AI systems that operate AVs are good. Remarkably good, in fact. But they need to be near-perfect. Driving, especially in a busy, ever-changing urban environment, is a supremely challenging task. Mistakes are not allowable.
  4. Human acceptance. Most people like driving. For all the reasons I mentioned earlier, and simply because, well, being at the wheel of a nice car and feeling it surge forward under command of your right foot is fun. It’ll be a while before the public gets comfortable with the notion of “robot” chauffeurs.

Ah, but consider just a few of the many potential upsides of solving these issues:

  • Traffic-safety experts predict that AVs could reduce crashes by 90 percent. Using the 2022 figures from earlier, that’s almost 39,000 lives saved in just one year. That’s reason #1 why AVs can’t arrive soon enough.
  • No more road rage, running red lights, slashing through traffic, or breaking traffic laws in any way. AVs will be thoroughly, reliably polite and respectful.
  • Watch a movie while you ride. Do some work. Hey, take a nap. Your vehicle will do all the tough stuff. Your attention is not required.
  • The end of impaired driving as we know it. Your AV will never drink, get tired, or become distracted playing Candy Crush. It’ll be 100-percent focused 100 percent of the time.
  • Peace of mind. Your elderly parent isn’t comfortable riding to the doctor’s office with a stranger? Your teenage daughter needs a ride home late at night? You’ll rest easy knowing each is the only human in the vehicle.

Sounds promising, right? But is it all really just a beguiling pipe dream, some whiz-bang Jules Verne fantasy that’ll never actually happen? Not at all. In fact, it’s possible to sample the AV future right now. If you find yourself in San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin, Dallas, or Houston, California’s Cruise is already offering rides to the public in its all-electric AVs—no driver necessary. Just sign up on the company’s online waitlist. Cruise is also currently testing driverless deliveries of Walmart orders for customers in the Phoenix area. So yes, the arrival of AVs is real all right. It’s already happening.

One day, AVs will become widespread. Once that happens, it’s my sincere hope that “regular,” driver-operated cars will continue to coexist right alongside them. Perhaps, just as horseback riding endures despite cars long-ago taking over as the personal transportation device of choice, driving for yourself will continue as a “purely for pleasure” pursuit. Driving without headaches. Sounds good to me.

Of course, when it’s time for a 45-minute slog to the airport through rush-hour traffic, I’ll be all too happy to turn to the AV waiting for me right outside my door and say, “The steering wheel’s all yours, pal.”

For almost four decades, Arthur St. Antoine’s award-winning automotive journalism has appeared in Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Automobile, and many other publications.

Arthur St. Antoine