Autonomy is Right Around the Corner, Yet Car Companies are Doubling Down on Driving Fun

Cars that drive themselves are coming to a roadway near you. So why are automakers so focused on fun?

Can a Toyota Camry legitimately be described as fun to drive? Toyota thinks so, and expects this to come to pass when the redesigned 2018 Camry arrives later this year.

The next-generation Camry is built on Toyota’s new global vehicle architecture, designed from the ground up to improve driving dynamism. Chairman Akio Toyoda, himself a fan of taking the long way home, has decreed that Toyotas and Lexuses must be more than just high-quality, dependable, and efficient vehicles. They must spark emotion, they must be enjoyable to drive, and they must be aspirational rather than an appliance.

Toyota is not alone. Multiple automakers are flexing their engineering muscles in order to appeal to people for whom the journey is just as much fun as the destination. Clearly, if you are a driving enthusiast, now is a great, if disconcerting, time to be alive.

Mazda’s latest advertising tagline is “Driving Matters.” Chevrolet is working on a mid-engined high-performance Corvette. Hyundai plans an upcoming N-badged line of performance models, and Kia recently introduced the gorgeous new Stinger. Lexus has F and F Sport models, Mercedes has launched a lower-priced AMG line of vehicles, and Fiat Chrysler is SRTing and Hellcatting almost everything in the Dodge lineup.

2017 Ford F-150 Raptor Crew Cab
Ford is building extraordinarily fun cars, SUVs, and trucks. The company is also investing heavily in our autonomous driving future.

Ford’s range includes everything from the diminutive Fiesta ST to the awe-inspiring GT supercar, with the wild F-150 Raptor, rally-inspired Focus RS, and remarkably satisfying Edge Sport and Fusion Sport models tossed in for good measure. And, let’s not forget about the Mustang, of course.

At the same time, like most automakers, Ford has the pedal to the metal on autonomous driving technologies. Just since the summer of 2016, Ford has announced in-house company researchers working at a new robotics lab at the University of Michigan, conveyed its vision of the city of tomorrow, debuted a next-generation autonomous Fusion Hybrid development vehicle, and invested in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company. And this is just what they’ve shared with the media.

So, what’s behind this emphasis on vehicles that are fun to drive when it is entirely possible that in a decade or two nobody will driving at all?

BMW, which has billed itself as “The Ultimate Driving Machine” for decades, has no plans to abandon its heritage even as it dives head first into the future.

At the end of 2016, BMW held a Vision Next 100 event in Los Angeles, the fourth stop on a global tour during which the company discussed its vision for the next century of mobility.

BMW Vision Next 100 Concept Car
BMW is working hard on its vision of the next 100 years of mobility. The company promises that future BMWs will continue to be “Ultimate Driving Machines.”

Two months later, at BMW Group’s Technology Office during the introduction of the 2017 5 Series, BMW addressed the issue of building ultimate driving machines head-on.

In 15 years, company executives predict, BMWs will offer an Ease driving mode and a Boost driving mode.

The Ease mode will provide autonomous driving, ferrying occupants to destinations while a driver monitors conditions and is prepared to take control of the vehicle if necessary, like an airline pilot who is using autopilot would.

The Boost mode is for when the driver desires to take full control of the vehicle, making good on its assurances to the assembled media that it will never build Point A to Point B transportation, and that the company will always offer drivers the choice to experience the ultimate driving machine of the future first-hand.

2017 Dodge Challenger SRT 392
Burning rubber is fun. Going fast is fun. Fiat Chrysler gets this. Nobody in their right mind would want a self-driving Dodge Challenger.

Speedy Daddy Says…

I’m not happy about our autonomous future, but we’re far enough down that road that self-driving vehicles are officially inevitable.

Putting aside the fact that I thoroughly enjoy driving, and derive both pride and satisfaction in doing it as well as I can, I recognize that too many people with too little talent and suffering too much distraction are, in part, causing traffic fatalities to rise. This is happening in spite of recent advances in driver assistance and collision avoidance technologies, not to mention dramatically improved crashworthiness of modern automobiles.

That needs to stop. And while I would prefer to stop it by making it much harder to get, and to keep, a drivers license, in turn putting the least capable and responsible drivers on public transportation where they belong, I recognize that this common sense solution will simply never be implemented.

So bring on the technology. Let the people who detest driving kick back, relax, and enjoy the commute.

I’ll be considering retirement by the time BMW’s Ease and Boost modes arrive in the next-next-generation of its current crop of cars and SUVs, anyway. Maybe I’ll move to the desert, park a self-driving Camry that will cost little to own and maintain in the driveway, kick back in a recliner and watch CNN all day.

But I’m never selling my Miata. You’ll need to pry its leather-wrapped manual shift knob out of my cold, dead hands.

Photography copyright each automaker. Images are for editorial use only.

By Christian Wardlaw

A driving enthusiast and father of four, I've got 25 years of experience working in automotive journalism. Currently, I contribute content to CarGurus, J.D. Power Cars and Kelley Blue Book. When I'm not working, I'm doing something fun with my family, preferably in Hawaii.

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