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Open Diff: Nothing is over until we decide it is

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Jim Hackett (L) with Bill Ford on May 22, 2017. Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.

On January 9, Ford CEO Jim Hackett–who spent two decades in executive positions with office furniture giant Steelcase–presented the keynote address at this year’s CES in Las Vegas. In an article previewing his speech, Hackett vilified the automobile, calling it “the ultimate disruptor to humans’ lives and our civic way of life.”

In his view of a future utopia, automobiles are replaced by “mobility solutions,” reclaiming city streets and returning parking lots to greenspace and farmer’s markets. The “sharing economy,” in which no one really owns transportation, factors heavily into his vision. Need to get from Point A to Point B? Just call up an autonomous pod–presumably maintained properly by someone else–for the journey.

Absent from his vision, and perhaps from his world view, is the fact that some of us still love cars and have a passion for driving. No VR simulation can replicate the feel of wind in the hair, or the noise that tires make at the limit of adhesion in a corner, or the gratification of a perfectly rev-matched downshift. With few exceptions, automakers no longer care about this, and increasingly their focus is moving away from cars towards higher-profit trucks and SUVs.

The GM Cruise AV, for autonomous vehicle. GM would like to put these into limited use in 2019, if the DOT approves its Safety Petition. Photo courtesy GM.

Autonomous vehicles are all the rage these days, and good for the occasional soundbite (and corresponding stock bump) to prove that Detroit–not just Silicon Valley–is working on such technology. Some will go so far as to say that self-driving cars are right around the corner, but we remain skeptical; building something that works in “pre-mapped urban areas,” GM’s description of the Cruise AV’s initial capabilities, is one thing, but building something that works on the dirt roads of Vermont is something else entirely. An optimistic projection would be that fully autonomous cars remain years away, while a realistic projection says they’re still decades off. Factor in America’s crumbling highway and road infrastructure, and insurance issues (Who’s responsible when an autonomous car has an accident? The owner? The manufacturer?), and even decades away may be too optimistic, aside from select routes in larger cities that generally enjoy good weather.

To quote the late John Belushi, as John “Bluto” Blutarsky in 1978’s Animal House, “Nothing is over until we decide it is.” There are no reinforcements coming, and automakers no longer have our collective backs. If the hobby is to be saved, it’s up to us to do so.

“How,” you ask? By teaching others that cars are interesting, and that driving (and not just operating a motor vehicle) can be fun. Step outside your comfort zone at car shows (and in parking lots), and talk to someone much older, or much younger, to learn what fuels their passion. Open your car for kids to sit in, and maybe even snap a picture of them behind the wheel. Teach someone to drive a manual transmission, and if you’re capable, teach them the lost art of rev-matching. Show them oversteer (in a controlled environment, of course), and teach them to catch a slide. Take a track day, and drag someone along who wouldn’t ordinarily participate. Prove to others that driving can be more than a task to endure, and that cars have more soul than some people.

Ford, according to Hackett, will be taking a “user-centered, systems-level design approach to mobility,” and that doesn’t sound like a future of which I’d be particularly fond. Unless we implement the change we want to see, we have only ourselves to blame for the decline of the hobby. And the rise of “mobility solutions.”