Last month, Popular Science ran an essay I wrote titled "Why You Can't Sell Me A Car." The goal was to stoke important conversations about the future of automobiles, and conversation we got—along with a flurry of hate mail.
I wrote the piece at the behest of Jake Ward, my former boss and editor-in-chief. We'd both seen several stories about automakers taking desperate measures to entice teens and 20- and early-30-somethings, also known as "millennials," to buy cars. General Motors, for example, hired an MTV executive to tell them what might turn the tide. Ford brought on a "generational expert."
Their brilliant solutions to boosting car sales among millennials? Knick-knacks in the dashboard, weirdly colored paints, less pushy car salespeople, and more credit cards.
As a member of the millennial generation, these and other stories irked me. Many of us grew up with landline phones, green-screened (and Internet-free) computers, CRT TVs, the original NES, and hand-written paper letters. Today a tiny slab in our pockets has essentially replaced these technologies while granting instant access to vast troves of human knowledge. We've witnessed these and other techy revolutions with awe, but cars haven't kept pace. Automobiles sold today remain, at their essence, almost frozen in time. Yes, cars are safer. Yes, they're more fuel-efficient. Yes, they're loaded with computing devices. And yes, some are electric. But the transaction of their daily, monotonous use is the same: climb into a metal box, grip a steering wheel, maintain extreme focus, and try not to die.
New technologies woven into cars rarely solve the key problems of routine driving. When they do—especially in the area of safety—human behavior at the wheel often marginalizes the gains. Other new features function primarily as marketing ploys to squeeze consumers for more money. (Note to automakers: Americans have been working harder and earning less since before the recession.) Cars have become increasingly expensive mobile money pits that continue to mar the environment, must be driven by and among error-prone humans, and injure 2.2 million people while killing 30,000 annually. And consider the AAA's sobering report that crashes cost society $300 billion each year.
At the risk of making myself a target for car enthusiasts, I agreed to write the essay, in which I articulated my belief that Detroit automakers can do better: by dramatically rethinking the American car. If a company that doesn't even manufacture automobiles, for example, can coax the vehicles to safely drive themselves on bustling public roadways for more than half a million miles, then there's no excuse for U.S. automakers not to lead the pack in disruptive technologies that could save lives, frustration, money, and the planet.
Since my essay ran, car insurance providers released two large surveys gauging American feelings toward autonomous vehicles. One was an omnibus survey of 1,000 Americans commissioned by the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. The data suggests that 18 percent of those surveyed would buy a driverless car. A second survey by released by Carinsurance.com surveyed 2,000 Americans; 20 percent said they'd buy a driverless car. (There was no significant difference between millennials and any other age group in desire to purchase a driverless car.)
Most writers have characterized the results as a rejection of autonomous cars by consumers and lack of trust in them. I see it another way: 18 to 20 percent of licensed drivers in the U.S. is about 40 million people—and a very large market.
As for the majority opposed to autonomous vehicles? Opinion doesn't mean they're unsafe or a bad idea. Around the time seatbelt laws were coming into effect, for example, polls showed that most Americans rejected that idea as well. Imagine if a dealership today tried to sell cars without a seatbelt.
I actually like cars. They are marvels of engineering and permit unparalleled personal freedom in travel. But the mass audience I addressed doesn't view cars primarily as hobbies, but as tools: for commuting to and from work, getting the kids to practice, making runs to the grocery store, and so on. I didn't write for those who love hugging the turns of winding roads or pushing 100 mph on desolate highways or wrenching under a classic. I have no desire to pry the steering wheels from the cold, dead hands of such a passionate crowd.
Still, car-loving and car-agnostic readers alike brought up valid points, and it's those I'd like to address to here in hopes of more vibrant conversation. Even if it means more hate mail.
Note: The following boldfaced statements are edited composites of the many reactions that readers posted online, emailed to Popular Science, and sent the author.
You don't speak for me and I'm a millennial. I love cars just the way they are.
One of the better days of my life was driving a 1976 Porsche 930 Turbo Carrera for the first time (to the palm-sweating terror of my future wife in the passenger seat). It was a beautiful machine that a relative had spent years restoring. I never questioned why he loved the car because I didn't have to; I understood.
Whatever feelings you might have toward a high-performance vintage vehicle, we can probably agree to dislike one thing about cars: the grind of routine travel. Daily commutes are boring, take time, cost money, and can kill us.
There was a time when Popular Science's automotive fluff pieces were about flying cars. It’s kind of sad to see that navel-gazing millennials won’t even carry that torch.
As for fluff? If you think transportation technologies that stand to dramatically transform the modern world are fluffy, then Popular Science will continue to carry its fluffy torch.
So you want to be chauffeured around. Like many in your generation, you want to pass off your duties/responsibilities to someone or something else. (That's called dependence.) Oh, poor you—driving is too hard and too dangerous. When history is written, your generation will be known as the “entitlement generation.”
Every U.S. generation in recent history hears similar complaints about its entitlement. It's a cranky, worn-out, get-off-my-lawn meme that is, frankly, meaningless. So let's retire it and actually have a conversation.
Suppose you need to send a simple message to a few dozen friends and family. Would you use a pencil, paper, envelopes, and stamps for each message—or just fire off one email and reach everyone at once? I'd prefer to have both options, but I'd use the latter on most occasions—thus saving myself the time and trouble of the former. Another question: Would you prefer to ride in an airplane equipped with autopilot that can land itself at the nearest runway during an emergency? Or a classic one that can't if a pilot passes out in the cockpit?
The point is that we all take numerous technological advancements for granted at every turn. It's not that big of a stretch or entitlement to desire the option of autonomous driving when it's now tantalizingly possible and could presumably save countless lives.
Speaking of which, driving isn't too hard for me—but it certainly is dangerous. I don't want to accidentally hurt or kill anyone, let alone damage another's property, and I don't want anyone to break my stuff and/or maim me. Humans did not evolve to operate complex machinery at high speeds. Artificial intelligence can now command a vehicle more safely than trained professional drivers. If wanting such a thing as an option makes me entitled, then I'll proudly wear that badge.