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Why humans may never give up the task of driving

Even when we reach the point where cars drive themselves

Everything around you is connected in the virtual world. IMAGE FROM TOYOTA

Brick-and-mortar is the flesh of the real world. Humanity defines itself by the monuments, the shrines, the edifices and the structures that we build. Our legacy, or history, has been literally shaped by the engineering marvels that rose with the ages: the ancient pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China, the Guggenheim Museum in the US, Taipei 101 in Taiwan. These iconic creations heralded an era, a generation.

Of late, however, real-world constructions are being rivaled by creations in the virtual world. Increasingly, there is so much focus on designing and building a virtual landscape that makes the world ever smaller, rendering walls or borders irrelevant.

I would say, for example, that Facebook was built as an alternate university campus or town hall, bringing friends together wherever they may be. It would be hard to imagine constructing a building that could house over a billion people in the real world. Facebook did it in the digital world.

This phenomenon is now also becoming more prevalent in many sectors of the economy and society. For instance, the growth of Amazon, WeChat or Lazada as online retail portals has supplanted the rise of malls, shopping centers and even supermarkets. Surely, warehouses have risen in their place, but they are neither architectural feats nor destinations—simply a structure with four walls and a roof.

People everywhere are becoming really spoiled these days. We want everything delivered to us. IMAGE FROM TOYOTA

I would even contend that restaurants are increasingly being marginalized by the rapidly increasing popularity of food-delivery services: Foodpanda, GrabFood, Uber Eats, Deliveroo. Restaurants used to invest in avant-garde dining facilities that provided the right combination of ambience, cuisine and service. The number of tables mattered, as did the bar and the decor. These days, the size and capacity of the kitchen becomes more important, pandering to the rising demand for home delivery. This has even given rise to shared kitchens where various restaurants cook their dishes in a common facility to cut down on delivery time.

And then there is the case of the cinema. Netflix, HBO, Apple, Disney and other video-on-demand portals have taken away the need to leave home to watch the latest movie.

Soon enough, we won’t have a reason to go out. The need to build brick-and-mortar facilities that impress, invite attention, challenge the senses and the sciences, and provoke curiosity will be replaced by a bleak, gray and boring landscape of warehouses, garages and cloud facilities. The real world, as we know it, will become a strange and discordant mix of houses, offices and a logistics grid that feeds our growing proclivity for the convenience of home, living life through the ubiquity of online services.

The car industry is aiming to ultimately remove steering wheels from vehicles. PHOTO FROM GENERAL MOTORS

So, what am I getting at?

I was thinking that maybe someday—sooner than later—the production of cars will likewise be upended. Today, designers rule the development of cars. After all, the very concept of a car begins with a sketch, a computer rendering and a clay model: It is designed. Of course, the exterior design takes into account the kind of drivetrain the car will adopt, its usage as a vehicle and the technology that will infuse it. But the design is key. In a way, automobiles can be said to be developed from the outside in.

With the advent of artificial intelligence and electrified drivetrains, and the profusion of connectivity solutions in cars, perhaps motor vehicles will become increasingly developed from the inside out. The focus will be more on how to build a car that acts as a platform for virtual solutions, providing a seamless experience from home to road to the office and back. Flexibility, functionality and convenience of the interior will precede the stylishness or flash of the exterior.

And while design may take a back seat to function, it is also highly likely that the automotive retail experience will relegate dealer sales facilities (as we know them today) to the netherworld. Car-shopping will shift into virtual mode where ease of purchase decisions, variety of purchase options and purchase customization will overtake touch and feel as drivers of the purchase cycle. You can experience the vehicle of your choice in your home or office, through virtual reality—looking under the hood, opening the doors and even starting the car. You can even explore installing accessories with a flick of your finger or a wave of your hand.

Convenience, automation and connectivity may seduce us into conceding control. But surrender is not in our nature

The ability to quickly and efficiently explore options for financing, insurance, trade-ins, extended warranties or subscription plans will increasingly put the customer at the center of the entire transaction, taking the insufferable inconvenience out of the buying experience. Most importantly, the stress and the anxiety of dealing with salespeople—who sometimes pressure you into making decisions that come back to haunt you—will be vanquished for all eternity.

You might never need to visit a dealer, even to take delivery of your car. With autonomous driving, your spanking new SUV can be programmed to arrive at your residence at the specific time and day you requested—on its own. When it gets there, you can sit in the comfort of your new car and the in-car “product specialist” can walk you through all the functions and the features, at a pace you prefer, even stepping away and coming back as and when you please. If there is something you need further clarification about that is not covered by the introduction, you can connect by voice to the automated brand concierge who will willingly take your questions and answer them with authority.

Service maintenance can take place online, with fixes for your troubles downloaded straight to your car. If you have to come in for service, your vehicle identification number or QR code can summon your service history instantly. You plug your car into a diagnostic system to determine what needs to get done, and your car drives itself autonomously to a designated service bay to receive whatever repairs it needs.

Who doesn’t want the convenience of being able to just sit back during a road trip? We sure do. PHOTO FROM VOLVO

Indeed, vehicles as we know them will be redefined. Driving will give way to mobility. Automobiles will become the ultimate mobile device. Some might say it will be reduced to nothing more than a platform that houses a suite of technological devices designed to keep you connected and cocooned in comfort while moving from one place to the next. The experience becomes one of “getting there” instead of “driving there.”

Still, the author suspects that man will always find brilliant ways to keep his driving duties. PHOTO FROM MCLAREN

For the many that have had to endure the nightmare of traffic snarls and the pains of commuting, perhaps the potential new realities of mobility will seem charming. But man has always taken charge of his own destiny and destination. Convenience, automation and connectivity may seduce us into conceding control. But surrender is not in our nature. We feel, we desire and we create. We drive. Cars will not be commoditized because driving brings such joy, such excitement and such thrill. We will always want to remain in the driver’s seat. We will want to go to real places. Because yes, it’s fun to drive.

Vince S. Socco

Vince is the chairman of GT Capital Auto and Mobility Holdings, a post he accepted after his retirement from Toyota Motor Asia-Pacific. His career began in 1979 with Delta Motor Corporation (Toyota). He mentors everyone—in real life and through his ‘Navigator’ column.