Quicker, Sure … But What About Fun?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I know that the PDK automated manual in the Porsche 911 GT3 (and other PDK-equipped Porsches like the Cayman S I reviewed recently; see here) delivers quicker — and consistently quicker — acceleration; that it can mimic exactly the perfect shift timing (and throttle blipping) of elite race car drivers and so enhances the performance — the efficiency — of the car. This is why a number of uber-exotic high-performance cars — as well as open wheel (Indy-type) race cars — also now use automated manuals of one type or another.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you’re playing for money and the only thing that matters is winning.

But what about the fun?

Does anyone care about that anymore?

I mean, taken to its logical conclusion, why not just make it so you get in the car, sit down and push a button for everything — and then do nothing? They’ve eliminated the human-actuated clutch and the need to shift gears for oneself on the theory — on the depressing fact — that a computer and the latest technology can do it better and faster than you can. True enough.

Well, why not remove you from the braking — and steering — equation as well?

Just tell the car, via Bluetooth: Zero to 60, maximum performance! Or: Fastest lap time! Off you go. The car takes over; you sit back and enjoy the ride.

Just like a roller coaster ride.

It’s enjoyable — but it’s not the same, is it?

It’s quick and fast. But you had nothing to do with it. You are a passive spectator. Something important has been lost. It is the difference between watching a fireworks show — and setting off the mortars yourself.

Personal involvement is what I am talking about. And yes, risk. It is a big part of the reward. Of the fun. This current obsession with eliminating the possibility of human error necessarily entails the side effect of rendering irrelevant human excellence. If everyone’s the same, no one stands out.

That gets boring after awhile.

Any guido with sufficient dollars can buy — and drive — a new 911 GT3 around a race track at zippy speeds. The car makes him look good; like he knows what he’s doing. But it took someone who did know what he was doing to drive a ’73 Carrera RS at speed around a track — or on the street, for that matter.

How many people can drive a ’68 L-88 four-speed Corvette around the block without embarrassing themselves? Not many. Cars in this class were once feral — savage — and dealing with them was not unlike having a pet panther in the house. It wasn’t for everyone. The bar was high. And it wasn’t just about money, either. This fostered an esprit de corps among elite sports car owners. For many years — until rather recently — the absence of automatic transmissions did a very effective job of keeping away the guidos.

Not anymore, courtesy of PDKs, et al.

The situation with elite high-performance cars that anyone can drive is analogous to the evil that has befallen bikers. I mean the guys who wear colors and ride old choppers and panheads. Those guys. As opposed to the bucket list mid-lifers straddling their brand-new “hogs” made to idle just the like real deal . . . but which aren’t. They’re mass-market fuel-injected facsimiles, made to look (and sound) the part but sans the crucial ingredient: The wildness — the danger — that made mastering one no small achievement. Go throw a leg over a hardtail chopper sometime and ride it for an hour or three to get a sense of the difference . . . if you can.

Imagine if everyone could play the violin like a master. Take a pill and run a six minute mile. Boast six-pack abs, but never go to the gym. Or — cue The Matrix (and CGI) and become a third degree black belt, just like that.

Plug and play.

Well, it hasn’t gotten that far — yet. But it’s definitely headed in that direction.

Effortless achievement = no achievement at all. A shiny trophy, just for showing up. Everyone a winner. No one ever loses. Where’s my bucket… I’m beginning to feel seasick.

How about we replace humans playing tennis with machines that serve (and return) perfectly every time? After all, they can do it so much better than even Serena Williams can.

Would you pay to watch the robots play?

How about “launch control” in high-performance cars? Are you hip? No need to be anymore. Just floor the accelerator — the computer will handle the rest. No need for you to feather the clutch, applying just enough throttle to balance clutch slip and wheel slip (eliminated by the traction control). My mother could run the new Corvette with launch control down the quarter mile better than I could launch a ’68 L-88 427 Corvette. Because the new Corvette’s computer nails it exactly right, every single time. I, on the other hand, might bog the big block. Or fry the clutch. Miss a shift. Some such.

But sometimes, I get it right. And there’s the thrill, folks.

Bring the revs up, sidestep the clutch — and let ‘er rip. Try to keep the nose pointed vaguely straight ahead, counter-steering to check the sideways slithering of the rear end. No traction control to prevent you from obliterating the tires; no stability control to keep you out of the ditch. The joy of nailing the 1-2 upshift perfectly . . . yourself.

Hot damn, it was fun!

No chips and ECUs and actuators. Just you and the machine.

When I beat someone else in a stop-light drag, I bask in the sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t just the car that won. We did it, together. But the car couldn’t have done it without me.

Someone else — less skilled or lucky that day — might not have been able to pull it off. Something different every time. A program is the same every time. It’s predictable — and it’s boring.

Same-same, no matter how quickly it happens.

These got-damned computers and got-damned technology assists are taking away everything that made cars fun, once upon a time. And it’s not just cars, either. Consider the plight of fighter pilots, as it is very much analogous. If you follow aviation, you probably know that the performance capability of the latest generation fighter jets — to say nothing of future generation fighter jets — now exceeds the capabilities of the human pilot. He cannot, for instance, take the full G load the planes are capable of. It is likely inevitable that human pilots will be eliminated entirely — and not just from military aviation. Commercial jets can take off, fly — and land — without a human pilot on board.

Human skill is being rendered irrelevant. Anything we can do, a computer will soon (if not already) be able to do better, more “efficiently.”

In the not-too-distant future, perhaps the mass of humanity will become like the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ novel, The Time Machine. Child-like, helpless adults — rendered so by their every need being taken care of automatically, effortlessly, by technology they no longer comprehend but have come to depend on completely.

But then, there are also the Morlocks. . . .



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