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HomeLuxuryIs there room for self-driving cars in luxury motoring?

Is there room for self-driving cars in luxury motoring?

Tesla Model S in white.
Tesla Model S. Photo: Tesla.

The word “car” entered the English lexicon from French in the late 18th century, a compound of the ancient Greek cars (αὐτός) meaning “I” and Latin mobility meaning “moving”. Originally referring to how man-made vehicles transitioned from relying on external power sources, such as horses, to being powered by their own engines, it seems ironic now that the word itself heralded the advent of truly “self-driving” vehicles.

Self-driving vehicles are becoming more and more a reality in the automotive industry today. To qualify as fully autonomous, a self-driving vehicle must be able to both map a path from point A to B and navigate the route itself safely, free of human intervention. Currently, these ongoing efforts rely on a combination of sensors that read the external environment (ie cameras, radar, lidar, etc.) and artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the feedback to do so.

Companies developing self-driving cars range from Audi to Google, although Google’s Waymo, in partnership with Lyft, has already launched its own fully autonomous commercial ride-sharing service, Waymo One. The service is continuously tested but is currently available in the US cities of Phoenix, San Francisco and soon Los Angeles.

Steve Mahan, former director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, stands next to a Waymo self-driving car Tuesday in San Francisco.
Steve Mahan, former director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, stands next to a Waymo self-driving car Tuesday in San Francisco. Photo: Eric Risberg/Associated Press.

The technology race to make cars self-driving is very much in line with the rise of Web3 and Big Data, where data is not only decentralized but also harnessed to power machine learning and AI – the digitization of manual processes into automated processes and the shedding of layers and layers of hardware into smooth , clean surfaces that run tons of software seamlessly with the touch of a finger.

Self-driving cars are nothing short of a technological marvel, but at the same time problematize the definition of what makes a good car. Durability, road safety and comfort are aspects of car manufacturing in which all car manufacturers strive to excel. Yet the removal of the driver itself seems to transform the car into a completely different beast. Then perhaps the question we should be asking in the world of luxury cars is not what makes a good car, but what makes one beloved car.

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Sean Connery with the Aston Martin DB5 at Stoke Poges during the filming of Goldfinger
Sean Connery with Aston Martin DB5 in Stoke Poges during the filming of Goldfinger, 1964.
Photo: United Artists, Danjaq LLC

The driver makes the car

Call it what you will: an effective marketing model or consumer-centric brand development; cars are defined by the people who drive them. It can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg puzzle to figure out which came first, the discursive image of the ideal car owner or the loyal car lovers themselves. Either way, the relationship between cars and the people who love, own or hope to own them is an intimate one – a relationship built around the sheer euphoric act of driving.

Video: Aston Martin.

One need look no further for proof than the most famous car in history – James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. The DB5 has captured the hearts of many car lovers since its debut in 1963, not least because of its Agent 007 behind the wheel, but also because of what it means to drive it. Between chasing bad guys down winding cobbled streets and quietly speeding from one city to the next in the dead of night like international spies do, the films show off just what the car was built to do: work like a beast.

Daniel Craig's Bond maneuvers an aggressive turn in the DB5 in No Time to Die.  Photo: Danjaq LLC, Universal, MGM
Daniel Craig’s Bond maneuvers an aggressive turn in the DB5 in No Time to Die, 2021. Photo: Danjaq LLC, Universal, MGM.

One of the fastest cars in the world at the time, the DB5 had a 4.0 liter naturally aspirated straight six that produced 282 hp and 380 Nm, all that power sent through a five-speed manual transmission to the rear wheels. Cornering in the DB5 is just one step away from being hardcore, although the heavier the steering on such cars, the less input is needed mid-turn. However, the engine more than makes up for it with its smooth, graceful ride at tremendous speeds, living up to the DB5’s status as a grand tourer. Even modern GT cars with their sophisticated suspension geometry and adaptive damping would struggle to match this senior in ride smoothness.

James Bond puts the DB5 to good use in Thunderball.  photo © United Artists, Danjaq LLC
Sean Connery’s Bond cruises through the countryside in the DB5 in Thunderball, 1965. Photo: United Artists, Danjaq LLC.

At the car’s helm is a more than well-trimmed soft leather seat that prepares the driver for added visibility, along with a generously sized tactile wooden steering wheel along with a pleasantly delicate shifter, customized for your driving pleasure. The pedals have also been known to be so thin that the rider would feel clumsy in casual sneakers, almost as if you were required to fit into a pair of polished oxfords. The wind noise over the front wings due to the lack of soundproofing is almost welcome, a reminder to the driver that they are already shifting to serious speed.

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Inside a preserved DB5 from the 1960s.  Photo: Car, UK.
Inside a preserved DB5 from the 1960s. Photo: Car, UK.
The delicious gear lever inside the DB5.  Photo: Car, UK.
The delicious gear lever on the original DB5. Photo: Car, UK.

The DB5 was discontinued in 1965 but received a special limited reproduction of 25 units in 2020 to match the release of the final Daniel Craig Bond film, No time to die – a proof not only of its inscribed place in automotive history as the Agent 007 car, but also to the love of cars that were meant to be learned, almost struggled with and finally, masterfully driven. The 2020 DB5 goes for a hefty price tag of $3.6 million. With such an iconic name as the DB5 at the center of luxury motoring, would one tolerate a switch to self-driving cars? Without James Bond skillfully in the driver’s seat, the iconic DB5 seems to be losing much of what makes it so beloved.

Aston Martin DB5 Goldfinger sequel.  Photo: Aston Martin
Aston Martin DB5 Goldfinger continuation, 2020. Photo: Aston Martin

Disrupting the automotive industry

It is perhaps this lack of identity that defines the self-driving car. After all, autonomous vehicles weren’t made to drive—they were made to fulfill social purposes. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 94% of serious crashes are due to human error, including drunk driving or careless driving. Self-driving cars aspire to be the answer to the inherent problem of human effort – risk of failure due to exhaustion. In addition to aiming to increase road safety, the autonomous vehicle industry also promises to help reduce the carbon footprint by increasing fuel efficiency and self-driving car sharing.

A Waymo One car avoids a fatal crash with a scooter.
A Waymo One car avoids a fatal crash with a scooter. Photo: Twitter @tsimonite

In the United States and Europe, autonomous trucks are being tested in hopes of improving the safety and quality of work of truck drivers over long distances, while Beijing, China is in the midst of deploying autonomous street-sweeping vehicles in the city. These projects are disrupting the automotive industry by fundamentally changing the way cars are designed. In this spirit, cars are not made for the driver but instead are made to compensate for a driver’s inherent limitations.

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Seven autonomous city maintenance vehicles, developed by Chinese internet search giant Baidu Inc, sweep roads in Shunyi district, Beijing, in September.  (Photo by Yuan Yi/For China Daily)
Autonomous city maintenance vehicles developed by Chinese internet search giant Baidu Inc. sweep roads in Shunyi District, Beijing, September 2018. Photo: Yuan Yi/ China Daily

Still, fully autonomous self-driving cars are far from complete with countless reports of failures and accidents. Technology is growing, but very slowly. The problem of growth and scaling in the industry is perhaps most clearly evidenced by the fact that the world had lost the fascination that the world had for Elon Musk’s Tesla back in 2021 when he first announced that he would have “over a million Tesla cars on the road with full self-driving hardware”. Tesla stock may have a rebound this summer, but it can only be described as “volatile” and “risky”. It hit a 52-week low of just over $100 a share back in January, and needs to climb higher than 130% in June Musk has been battling supply chain disruptions since 2021, eager to cut costs to improve his margins and produce a more marketable and affordable self-driving car.

Elon Musk at Tesla's 2021 annual shareholder meeting.
Musk at Tesla’s annual general meeting 2021. Photo: Youtube @tesla

His crosshairs landed on radar technology, a core component of the autonomous vehicle’s ability to detect dangers from afar. Without radar, Teslas would be susceptible to even basic perception errors and worse, crashes and collisions. Over the past two years, reports of Teslas misinterpreting street signs, aggressively braking from high speeds for imaginary hazards, and even fatal accidents have surfaced. The speed to scale and reduce costs may be typical of any tech startup, but almost the opposite of the spirit of luxury motoring.

Luxury is permanence

After all the innovation and design has passed, what remains in the figure of the luxury car? The truth is that a real luxury car is one that represents the unattainable. Never mind the multi-million dollar price tags, the best cars in the luxury car world are as rare as fine jewels. They evoke driving pleasure not so much because of the luxurious driving experience, but because most people can only dream of driving one.

Hong Kong celebrity Aaron Kwok admires his private collection of luxury cars.  Photo: Prestige.
Hong Kong celebrity Aaron Kwok admires his private collection of luxury cars. Photo: Prestige.

Self-driving cars and luxury cars seem to have one thing in common: they are both not meant to be driven. The former disrupts what a car is by removing the driver and aims to fulfill as many human functions as possible – a rush to innovate and create. The latter, however, is focused on refining what a car is by centering the experience of a single driver, striving for perfection and becoming so sought after that it becomes rare, only to be seen on the roads when its lucky owner decides to take it. out for a spin. Therein lies the euphoria of driving a luxury car, of sitting in a seat universally loved over time.

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