Is Tech Taking Away Our Emotional Connection with Cars? By Darryll Harrison

When I was a kid, I dreamed of one day driving. My 1/18 scale Ferrari F40 was my daily inspiration that I too would be able to pilot several tons of automobile in the future. Driving would set me free from parental restraints and the day-to-day challenges an average 13 year old had to endure – you know, homework, studying and soccer practice. I pictured myself behind the wheel of a Ferrari (or Volkswagen Passat as it were!). Driving was about skill and getting away from it all. It symbolized freedom in a way that nothing else at the time could.

Ironically, my father (the reason for me pursuing a career in automotive in the first place) wasn’t a big fan of cars and warned me of the perils of having an automotive hobby from as early as I can remember. He was also the guy that taught me how to work on a car as soon as I could handle a wrench. Not because he enjoyed it, but because to him, cars were a terrible investment and he refused to pay a mechanic when he had an able-bodied young man under his roof that could do it for free. And so my love for cars was born.

Traditionally, cars have been about need and desire. They capture so many feelings for so many people. They serve a purpose and create an emotional connection, no matter how one feels about them. In today’s fast paced, increasingly connected world, will the cars of the future maintain emotional connections with their drivers or has technology increasingly eroded that connection? Will the introduction of more and more ride sharing choices, born out of new levels of connectivity and technology, break our connection with our cars?

photo via Volkswagen
photo via Volkswagen

In January, Volkswagen introduced a powerful example of what the future holds with the BUDD-e Concept. It’s a microbus of the future based on the all-new Modular Electric Platform (MEB), featuring longer range than today’s EVs, and an interior that would significantly change the way humans interact with their vehicles. With a direct line to the Internet of Things, the BUDD-e transforms personal mobility and creates a bridge between smart car and smart home innovations.

In this microbus, technology enables the driver to access information never before accessible from the car. Do you have milk in the fridge? Just ask BUDD-e to check. Did you leave the lights on at home? No sweat, check directly from the vehicle’s information center. Someone at the door? No problem. Once the doorbell rings, an image of person at the door will appear on a smaller screen in the vehicle. Need a package delivered? Provide the delivery address for where the car is parked and open a “drawer” in the rear of the car in which someone can drop it off.

The BUDD-e creates a mobile version of the home on four wheels. Much of the information passengers are able to access at home is now at your fingertips and provided in a way that reduces distraction while driving.

While all of these innovations are incredible, what does that mean for the definition of the car? If a driver isn’t worried about driving down the road, will they even care or feel any sort of connection with an automobile? Will connectivity diminish the pure love of driving and will ride sharing kill any sort of individual connection to one vehicle? This question is one that is being posed by auto companies and technology experts around the world. In the new highly connect sharing economy, do people need their own vehicle or will they simply share with others when the need arises? Technology has not only made the automobile more connected, but has encouraged the dramatic increase in vehicle sharing.

Companies like Audi have already started piloting a variety of ride share programs and research studies that provide consumers unique ways to lease a vehicle or study the ways people in engage with existing ride sharing models. The largest pilot, Audi on Demand, makes driving the model of your choice in San Francisco, easy. Consumers can make a reservation directly through a smartphone app. Once reserved, a concierge will meet you to drop off the vehicle, take you through the features, and off you go. When your reservation ends, the concierge will come back and pick up the vehicle. It’s that easy.

Other pilots include Audi at home, which leverages existing concierge programs to enable residents of select properties in Miami and San Francisco to gain access the Audi of their choice, on demand, anytime they want it. Audi Unite is an initiative in Stockholm where households, roommates, or even just groups of friends can share the lease of a car, utilizing an app to schedule time in the vehicle while also assigning unique monthly payments based on the amount of usage per person. Audi Select, is yet another pilot in Berlin that allows a lessee to “buy into” a package enabling the driver to rotate through a select group of vehicles each year.

Startups like Prazo are taking the leasing model and turning it on its head. Instead of a long term commitment, customers can lease cars short term and leverage a concierge service of sorts along with it. Prazo allows customers to lease a vehicle without the hassle of being stuck with it for years. In addition, consumers are able to obtain tools and accessories as needed, utilize a concierge service for weekend trips, and access other forms of transportation quickly if the need arises. Ski trip planned? Go ahead and request a new vehicle on your app, swap your current car with a SUV and hit the road.

If this is the future, what does that mean for car people like many of you reading this right now? The likelihood is that sharing will mean fewer car owners, and a weaker emotional connection to the automobile. Or will it? Will owning your own car be something reserved for the few?

For me, I enjoy the ability to drive where I want, when I want, with constant access to a vehicle. It’s almost become second nature, since I’m fortunate enough to have a car in my garage whenever I need it. As access to information and things have become increasingly more available through the internet and the smartphone, I find that my desire to drive has waned. I originally found myself hailing an Uber or Lyft only when I was going to be grabbing a few drinks. Now, I hail a rideshare service for something as simple as, wanting to avoid traffic (by leveraging the carpool lane), so that I don’t have to look or pay for parking at my destination, and so on.

Is this what everyone else is feeling? Am I the only one? My fear of losing “the car bug” is palatable, but do I really have anything to be afraid of?

Time will tell, but the transformation of the auto industry and mobility in general is fascinating to watch. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy long drives with my hands on the wheel  — and the occasional Uber or Lyft rides when I don’t feel like driving.

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