Will performance specs matter when autonomy reigns?


For those of us who consider ourselves “Car People” performance often tops the list of importance. We like being shifted about and smashed into the back of our seats. Time, speed, torque and power number data influence our opinion of a car. Will autonomy wipe that out?

My guess is yes, performance is doomed.

In a future where we summon a shared vehicle and sit in a passenger seat while it navigates to our desired destination, we won’t pay attention to the road, much less to how much performance is packed between the wheels. When riding in an autonomous vehicle, comfort and atmosphere will be the only qualities we critique. We’ll want our transportation to be clean, quiet, and accommodating. The only speed you’ll be concerned with is the internet connection. Time will be a matter of punctuality, not zero to sixty.

Outside of the track, does performance really matter? No, but also, heck yes!

A top speed of 155 mph is not a realistic requirement for the vast majority of people. 85 or 90 mph is easily the upper limit of where any non-professional driver should explore. You’re a lunatic and a hazard if you’re exceeding 90 on a public road.

Don’t get mad, driving enthusiasts, I’m still on your side. There are other performance elements that are very important, practical, and arguably necessary. For example, everything else that a Tesla Model S P90DL has to offer. I’m talking about that torque-tastic ludicrous acceleration. I like to think of it as a safety feature. Not sure that the cruisers on the highway will let you merge from the on-ramp? Overtake them. Are you in that semi’s blind spot and about to get cut off? Better speed up quickly. Feeling drowsy? Punch it for an instant shot of adrenaline. Is a pack of performance athlete zombies coming your way? Better toggle on Bioweapon Defense Mode, and get moving!

But you know what? These examples only remain relevant while humans are still partially driving. It seems likely that we will reach a point in which it only makes sense for regulators to ban inherently unsafe human drivers, requiring us all to rely on shared autonomous fleets.

I don’t think we should view the end of performance models as a bad thing. We won’t even notice their absence outside of the motor sports realm, similar to how we rarely find ourselves wondering, “where did all of the horse drawn carts go?” today. The absence of “performance” will usher in an era of efficiency. Computers can optimize energy use much better than any human can. We are generally too disconnected, impatient, and emotional behind the wheel.

For those of us still wanting some motoring thrills and adrenaline in the future, we’ll just have to visit a track where a performance vehicle belongs and can really test its limits. This is an overlooked variable in the current safety equation. Removing human piloted performance vehicles will help keep future traffic safe and predictably reliable.

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