How Much Tech is Too Much Tech in Our Cars? Analog vs. Digital Driving
Over the past few months I've driven some technically clever cars. But a weekend at the track behind the wheel of a modern classic leaves me wondering if I've committed some deep heresy.
If you haven't driven the most recent Audis, Teslas, and Volvos, you'd be surprised how smart these vehicles have become and how rapidly previous generations become dated. Driver assistance systems aren't quite fully autonomous yet, but if a car's sensors can read the lines on the road, it will do almost everything for you. Got a turn coming up, or approaching a bend too fast? The navigation system can spot either of those and slow the car down for you. Stuck in traffic? You can go hands- and feet-free up to 37mph (60km/h, the legal maximum such systems are allowed to work over in Europe).
As a driver, this leaves you more mental bandwidth to do other things, like looking at the scenery on long and boring road trips. The benefits to driver fatigue are undeniable. For long distance cruising—day or night, rain or shine—this future enabled by Velodyne and Mobileye and Nvidia and Qualcomm is already promising to be a bright one.
It's different for pros like Kurt Busch—he showed us—but any racing ups your heart rate.
But it makes you soft. How it makes you soft. Earlier this month GM were kind enough to lend us a Corvette for a track day at Mid-Ohio, outside Columbus. We met the car at the airport and drove it to Lexington, an act that required me to actually do the driving. Sure, there was cruise control, but it's functionally the same as the cruise control for my 2005 Saaburu, maintaining a constant speed regardless of corners or curves or whatever else may be ahead of you. Given the rain, the snow, and the variable speeds of traffic on I-71, driving manually was the way to go. That felt like effort after so many semi-autonomous miles.
The main reason we were at Mid-Ohio was for a round of the World Racing League, an amateur endurance series that I've been competing in with some friends for a few years now. Our car is a 1991 Volkswagen Golf GTI, the very antithesis of the modern stuff on the pages of Ars recently.
The weather in Ohio was beastly. Temperatures hovered around freezing, with snow flurries all day Friday. The Corvette—equipped with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires—was ill-equipped for the conditions and had to be nursed around each corner with the gentlest touch of throttle to avoid imminent death.
The Golf—also on summer tires—fared little better. Just five laps on Friday were all it took to remind me of a different kind of driving experience. There's no power steering, so corners require actual physical effort. There's no ABS. The engine has an ECU but it's positively ancient; needless to say there is no traction control, no on-the-fly throttle remapping, no selection of drive modes with the twist of a dial. Certainly no setting that blips the throttle perfectly on downshifts. The Golf is heel-and-toe or nothing.
Getting back into the Corvette for more laps was like a simulacrum of driving, a digitally filtered experience. I could almost see the software code that took my control inputs and converted them into the car's action.
It's not that the Corvette is a bad car. I've had some fine experiences in the latest generation. And I dearly wish the track had been dry enough to generate some heat in the tires. But those 15 minutes in the Golf were all I could talk about the following day (our Saturday race was cancelled due to the snow), not the hour or two I spent lapping the 'Vette.
By Sunday the track was (mostly) ice-free and dry enough to race. I was looking forward to more time in the Golf even though I normally dread race day. If I had to score my driving that day I'd call it a B effort—few mistakes but not much speed, probably because I was too busy in 2015 to do much racing. A gamble on tires didn't quite pay off and probably cost us a class win, but we still finished second in GP3, still my best result with the team (other commitments meant I missed the race we won last year). Sunday was definitely the purest driving experience for me in a long time, possibly since my last race in 2014, maybe since my last drive in the old Mazda Miata that we've since donated to the Humane Society.
But as much as this analog epiphany had me questioning whether technology has seduced me, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't wished for an Audi A4, Tesla Model X, or Volvo XC90 to drive us back to Columbus that night.
This article originally appeared on Cars Technica.