Sit Back And Enjoy The Ride?

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I know that the PDK automated manual in the Porsche 911 GT3 (and other PDK-equipped Porsches like the Cayman S I reviewed recently; see here) delivers quicker – and consistently quicker – acceleration; that it can mimic exactly the perfect shift timing (and throttle blipping) of elite race car drivers and so enhances the performance – the efficiency – of the car. This is why a number of uber-exotic high-performance cars – as well as open wheel (Indy-type) race cars – also now use automated manuals of one type or another.

PDK shifter

Which is fine, I suppose, if you’re playing for money and the only thing that matters is winning.

But what about the fun?

Does anyone care about that anymore?

Taken to its logical conclusion, why not just make it so you get in the car, sit down and push a button for everything – and then do nothing? Elite sports car manufacturers such as Porsche have eliminated the human-actuated clutch and the need to shift gears for oneself on the theory – on the depressing fact – that a computer and the latest technology can change gears better and faster than you can.

True enough.

Well, on the same principle, why not remove you from the braking – and steering – equation as well?

Just tell the car – via Bluetoof –  Zero to 60, maximum performance! Or: Fastest lap time! Off you go. The car takes over;  you sit back and enjoy the ride.

As opposed to the drive.
911 GT3

It’s enjoyable, certainly. Like a roller coaster ride.

In both cases, though, you had nothing to do with it. You are a passive spectator. Dead weight, really. Something important has been lost.

It is the difference between watching a fireworks show – and actually setting off the mortars yourself.

Personal involvement. And yes, risk. It is a big part of the reward. Of the fun. This current obsession with eliminating the possibility of human error via layers of computer-controlled intervention necessarily entails the side effect of rendering irrelevant human excellence.

The roller coaster works the same no matter who happens to be riding along.

It gets boring after awhile.

The fulsome scurvy truth is that  any guido with sufficient dollars can buy – and drive – a new 911 GT3 around a race track at zippy speeds. The car makes him look good; like he knows what he’s doing. But it took someone who did know what he was doing to drive a ’73 Carrera RS at speed around a track – and not put it into the wall.

How many people can drive a ’68 L-88 four-speed Corvette around the block without embarrassing themselves?

Not many.

Cars in this class (elite, ultra-performance) used to be feral, savage things – and dealing with them was not unlike having a pet panther in the house. It wasn’t for everyone.

And that was part of the point.

It fostered an esprit de corps among elite sports car owners. For many years – until rather recently – the absence of automatic transmissions did a very effective job of  keeping away the guidos.

Not anymore, courtesy of PDKs, et al.  What will happen when computers take over braking and steering? (They’re already doing this, to some extent. Many new cars will brake automatically, without the “driver” even touching the pedal. Some can automatically steer, too.)     guido

The situation with elite high-performance cars that anyone can drive is analogous to  the evil that has befallen bikers. I refer here to the guys who wear colors and ride old choppers and panheads. Those guys. As opposed to the bucket list mid-lifers straddling their brand-new “hogs” made to idle just the like real deal . . . but which really aren’t. They’re mass-market  fuel-injected facsimiles – made to look (and sound) the part but sans the crucial ingredient: Go throw a leg over a hardtail chopper sometime and ride it for an hour (better yet, three) to get a sense of the difference . . . .

Imagine if everyone could play the violin like a master. Take a pill – and run a six minute mile. Boast six-pack abs, but never go to the gym. Cue The Matrix (and CGI) and  become a third degree black belt, just like that.

If everyone’s a hero – or an expert – than no one is. We’re all average, nothing special.

It hasn’t gotten that far – yet. But it’s definitely headed in that direction.

Effortless achievement = no achievement at all. A shiny trophy, just for showing up. We’re all winners! No one ever loses. Where’s my bucket . . . ? I’m beginning to feel sea sick.

How about we replace humans playing tennis with machines that serve (and return) perfectly every time? After all, they can do it so much better than even Serena Williams..

But would you pay to watch the robots play?

'68 L-88

How about “launch control” in high-performance cars? Are you hip? No need to be anymore. Just floor the accelerator – the computer will handle the rest. No need for you to feather the clutch, applying just enough throttle to balance clutch slip and wheel slip (eliminated or safely controlled by the traction control). My mother could run the new Corvette with launch control down the quarter mile. Anyone’s mother could. Because the new Corvette’s computer nails it exactly right, every single time. Which is great – if mere repetition of perfection is what you’re after.

But what if you’re after something else? Something not so effortless? Something that involves effort on your part?

Why do we watch the Olympics? Or any demonstration of human excellence? What if – via pills or genetic engineering – everyone could be equally excellent? What if Indy Cars were set up to brake and steer themselves? Why not? They’d run faster lap times, surely. We have the technology – or soon will.

I realize I am like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Automated everything seems to be horribly inevitable – and just around the corner. People will peck at their iPads and giggle. Oh, Brave New World!

In the world now receding, it was different – imperfect. But, a challenge. You didn’t get it right every time. But sometimes, you did. And there’s the thrill, folks.

Gather your courage, bring the revs up. Now – sidestep the clutch – and let ‘er rip. Holy shit! You’d be fighting to keep the nose pointed vaguely straight ahead, instinctively modulating throttle and countersteering to check the sideways slithering of the rear end. There was no traction control to prevent you from obliterating the tires; no stability control to keep you out of the ditch. The joy of nailing the 1-2 upshift spot on . . . yourself.

No chips and ECUs and actuators. Just you and the machine.

As opposed to the machine … and you.

game boy pic

Someone else – less skilled or lucky that day – might not have been able to pull it off. And it was something different every time.

A program is the same every time.

No matter how excellently executed, it’s not you that’s done it. Which is why I don’t want it.

For the same reason I don’t want a Super Bowl ring.

These got-damned computers and got-damned technology “assists” are taking away everything that made driving thrilling, once upon a time. And it’s not just cars, either. Consider the plight of fighter pilots. If you follow aviation, you probably know that the performance capability of the latest generation fighter jets – to say nothing of future generation fighter jets – now exceeds the physical capabilities of the human pilot. He cannot, for instance, take the full G load the planes are capable of. It is likely inevitable that human pilots will be eliminated entirely – and not just from military aviation. Commercial jets can take off, fly – and land – without a human pilot on board.

eloi picture

Human skill is being rendered irrelevant. Anything we can do, a computer will soon (if not already) be able to do better, more “efficiently.”

In the not-too-distant future, perhaps the mass of humanity will become like the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ novel, The Time Machine. Child-like, helpless adults – rendered so by their every need being taken care of automatically, effortlessly, by technology they no longer comprehend but have come to depend on completely.

But then, there are also the Morlocks to consider. . .  .

Throw it in the Woods 

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  1. Had a PDK Boxster, it was initially fun… then I learned manual and at that point, hand me a ’92 Civic hatch.

    Manual or bust for me, I wanna be involved, not just point and go

  2. Eric said…..”It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.”

    Perhaps that’s true. But it is much, much more fun to Drive a Fast Car Fast.

  3. “In the not-too-distant future, perhaps the mass of humanity will become like the Eloi .”

    Yesterday I took a 400 mile ride up and back on my big road bike using central Calif. major highways. Twice I had to slip into the center divider because an Eloi merged into my lane without looking. Both times they were shocked to see me at their drivers door waving at them 3 feet away going 70 MPH. Then I got caught in afternoon rush hour on a 3 lane freeway. The usual rubber band 50 MPH sudden 5 to 10 MPH then back to 50 and so on. Twice in 5 minutes the driver of a Mercedes behind me locked the brakes at the last second, grinding off about 30,000 miles of tire wear both times, narrowly not rear ending me.

    People are now so inattentive & distracted that I am beginning to believe Google knows the future and is making a car for them.

  4. All this computerized stuff does is remove control from the driver who is just too stupid to operate a machine. It makes me yearn for the return of Nash Metropolitians instead of the current crop of xboxes on wheels.

    • Amen, CC . . . me too.

      There’s a great quip that applies to this discussion:

      It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

      Today’s sports cars can do incredible things, but I’ve had more fun in cars like my ’70s-era Trans Am and ’60s-era Corvair…

  5. I was with you up to the bit about airplanes. Modern transport category jets cannot take off without a pilot. Nor taxi to or from the runway. They can autoland, yes, but are almost never called upon to do so unless it’s a matter of the aircraft’s currency. Then the airline pesters the crew of that aircraft with messages (yes, automated ones) to autoland it. But when the visibility is 600′ with an indefinite ceiling, no one’s landing anywhere without that autopilot (or a HUD, but civilian aviation doesn’t use those much). Sure, everybody uses the autopilot in cruise. Would you like to spend an entire six hour flight hand flying the thing? Pass. In fact, in that scenario, the pilot is much more likely to be alert for the really challenging part–landing–thanks to the workload relief made possible by the autopilot. None of which is to say that automation obviates the need for real stick and rudder skills. Automation fails, but even if it never did you’re not master of the aircraft if you can’t handle it at least as well as George. Automation in aviation should always be a tool in the hand of a master, never a crutch propping up incompetents. And as for the hardest thing about flying–using good judgement–well, there’s no such thing as an autopilot that can do that.

  6. Never posted here,but dig your site. Wish more people could see it. Damned guugle. thought I’d leave this link as it pertains to this post.

    • Thanks, Moonshyne!

      Appreciate the pat on the back; let your friends know about us – it’s a word of mouth kind of deal, I guess…

  7. I don’t follow F1 that closely, but I always thought it was a good thing when they were striking down traction control. (I don’t know how much they do allow today)

    It’s probably also why I like formula classes in general, the old IROC series, etc.
    I like watching motorsport where driver skill is the dominant factor in determining who wins/loses.

    I really appreciate the experience older enthusiast vehicles provide, which is one of more interaction/participation versus the new ones when it comes to enthusiast driving(and riding to some extent). They are more elemental.

    For the Daily Grind(commuting)I’m fine with with the electronic wizardry I suppose, I just don’t consider it fun in terms of an enthusiast vehicle.

  8. I got an idea for getting rid of even more of the Guidos.

    Let’s eliminate synchromesh, anti skid braking, limited slip differentials,power steering and breaks, and all wheel drive. This will give the driver more direct control of all mechanical aspects of the driving experience, and make him more attentive to what he’s doing.

    If someone is driving a stick shift car that still has all these other unnecessary crutches, they shouldn’t fool themselves…..they are still a Guido! 😉

  9. I wish more people would read “The Time Machine”. The movie essentially deleted the most important aspects of the story, which were regarding evolution and eugenics. That the two races of people developed along class lines. The rich became the Eloi, the working class became the Morlocks. The reason Morlocks are small, ugly, and hunched over is the eugenics aspect of it. These were the supposed traits of the working class, rather than a condition caused by lack of proper nutrition and a life of back breaking work. The Eloi being tall and pretty because well… those were the traits of the wealthy, not because they had access to the things to be so.

    Then again in my work I often find myself surrounded by those shorter than I was in grade school and see the same class divisions with the physical differences. But I digress…

    But as far as this article goes the difference between the movie and the book is not particularly relevant. The theme that those who do the work, know how to do the work will ultimately be on top sooner or later holds true in both the film and the book. Remember, the Eloi were food for the Morlocks. They behaved as what we call sheeple today. With technology some are now calling them zombies. We can see the Eloi being created before us.

    Morlocks won’t be the factory workers. They’ll just be a small group of people who have skills and knowledge. Be it mountain men or just rabid do-it-yourselfers. “Who Run Barter Town?”

    On another note there’s something about today’s technology that just doesn’t require learning from day zero or even close to it. Back when I was kid I still had to learn things from pretty close to their basic level. I didn’t have to do machine code, but I had to get within a hair of it at times, entering what seemed like random numbers in programs for the machine code subroutines. I didn’t have to drive without sychros but close enough. Today… the floor is so far removed from the basics the basics don’t seem to be taught. Do kids today even know what a transistor does? Doesn’t seem like it. It’s right to microcontrollers programmed via USB. The floor is getting too high. Once nobody knows how to do things at a level of decades ago a disaster free-falls the technology and only the stone age people and the mountain men live. I’ve felt that 1900-1920 is the stop gap time. where a home workshop and knowledgeable people could stop the slide. But those people and skills seem to be vanishing. Maybe in other cou

  10. I see our future heading toward sci-fi reality a la “Terminator” and “Battlestar Gallactica”. We already have Skynet compliments of the NSA, how much longer before the Cylon drones decide humans are irrelevant and turn on us?

    • or the robotic drones become self-aware and take their responsibility of protecting us to the ultimate end where we are our own worst enemy and must be exterminated to stop us from harming ourselves.

  11. excellent points,
    the question I keep coming to is this; do you want to take care of yourself (autonomy) or be taken care of (nanny-state)?

    efficiency is important, I want my vacuum cleaner and dishwasher to be “efficient”, but my weekend “toy” track day car/bike should be “fun”.

    so much of the efficiency and user friendliness comes from teh desire of increasing the market of people to sell to. in many ways it is ferrari and the porsche’s of the world turning their back on their core supporters.

    on monday i got a ride in a ’69 stingray for the first time, the driver just likes to cruise and doesn’t push it but I could tell it was a monster. he’s ridden with me in my mr2 so i don’t think he will ever let me drive his vette.


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