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How Hyperloops and autonomous vehicles change the future of driving


How Hyperloops and autonomous vehicles change the future of drivingWith Elon Musk divulging his Hyperloop concept, documenting how a solar-powered pneumatic capsule within a tube could have people speeding from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30-minutes, and most automakers having some form of working concept for an autonomous vehicle, what's going to be left for people who like driving?

While Musk's Hyperloop remains merely an idea, albeit an idea that on the surface appears feasible, it offers a glimpse into the potential future of transportation. While the I-5 from LA to San Francisco isn't exactly pleasant, the direction we head as a species remains clear. Moving from a society where long road trips denote free-spirited adventure, to an era where capsules traveling close to 900 mph turn what today remains a long journey into one that could be completed during a lunch break, the glory of piloting a car along beautiful country roads appears to be dwindling.

Then we have autonomous cars; the idea of which has already received virulent critique amongst the driving enthusiasts who despise the thought of becoming little more than button pushers, despite the sizable improvement . Autonomous vehicles, too, are racing towards production, faster than previously expected.

Even in today's cars — like the Lincoln MKZ and Infiniti Q50 — a form of semi-autonomous driving can be accomplished, albeit not to the degree we will eventually see. Many cars possess adaptive cruise control and emergency braking that adjusts the vehicle's speed to that of the car in front, and can stop quickly if a situation presents itself. An adaptive steering system, like Infiniti's drive-by-wire electrical steering that initiates course corrections, can keep the car centered in the lane. So combining these assets effectively creates a car that can drive itself, with zero driver input, at least for a short period of time; at some point, driver intervention becomes necessary, but the basic ideas are already out there.

And it's not just autonomous driving, either. Driver engagement has gradually been stifled over the years; all but eliminating manual transmissions, moving to electric power steering to save weight and increase efficiency — to the detriment of steering feel — and, of course, an influx of hybrid engines and all-electric cars, entirely in an effort to appease federal regulations and save consumers cash at the pump.

The era when cars were inbuilt into our culture has long gone. When the 1970s hit and the fuel crisis began, along with rocketing insurance costs, vehicles that were once affordable and exciting to drive became pushed out of the marketplace. And over the years, we have seen a steady decline in driving, especially among young people who now face a harder financial climb to owning a car. Today, driving has primarily become a means of transportation. People buy Camrys and Accords, not because they excite them, but because they are cheap, offer good fuel efficiency and get the job done. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But just because most of our population deem vehicles to be an appliance, that doesn't mean there isn't a distinct car culture. What was once simply a part of growing up — like driving dad's GTO to the drive-in movie theatre — has become more niche, and rare amongst youths. And as time moves on, and autonomous vehicles become widely accepted as the norm and things like subsonic tubes take people further and faster, actually hopping behind the wheel and driving an automobile will become less imperative than ever.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing for the gear-head. The less people traveling the roads outside of the busy city walls, the better the experience for enthusiasts who are dusting off their old gems and enjoying the open road. A long road trip from coast-to-coast may seem more like the adventure it once was — leading to a boom in car culture once again — as it becomes the cool way to travel, not simply the only way.

Admittedly, many of the best cars today feel somewhat subdued and lack driver engagement in the name of a better efficiency rating. But it's time to move past the negatives and look at the positives: Cars today have never been more powerful. Five hundred horsepower has become a common sight--even Shelby Mustangs now boast 662 hp and top 200 mph. And it's finally becoming cheaper to run our cars, as the manufacturers eek out additional miles-per-gallon, making road trips more feasible for the average family.

Motoring today remains entirely different than it was in the '60s, and that disparity is only going to grow exponentially in the future. But perhaps it's that change, making the art of motoring an adventure again rather than just a means of transportation, that sets us up for a prosperous future. We needn't be afraid of change. Perhaps change will deliver our kids the inherent car culture we worry about today.

Photo: Flickr - sgrace, Erik Charlton