Self-driving cars are coming. Thanks to visions of Skynet and Terminators, this is a frightening proposition to many people. Rather than being seen as an unparalleled convenience, autonomous cars have often been viewed as a soul-sucking leech on the driving experience. But that’s a shame, because if you begin to see cars as appliances, the appeal of an autonomous automobile is enormous.
Of course, if you’ve ever listened to a Bruce Springsteen song, you know that the legend of the automobile is tied to the freedom open roads provide, and identifying cars simply as appliances would strip cars of their character and persona. Just look at Google’s self-driving car; the tech giant’s prototypes look more like toasters than actual vehicles. So, while it’s undeniable that spending too long behind the wheel can become a chore (and a dangerous one, at that), it’s also evident that self-driving cars need to be carefully curated. An autonomous Ferrari, for example, would be a poor application of this technology. With that in mind, we took a look at the auto market and chose the 10 cars we’d most like to see capable of driving themselves.
A car that can do the driving itself will let whoever’s in the left front seat do lots of other things. And anyone who wants to be able to do lots of things these days will probably want to start with a speedy Internet connection. The Audi A3, aimed squarely at multi-tasking American hipsters, offers 4G LTE connectivity through the Audi connect system. In addition to letting passengers access the Internet, this system uses Google Earth’s 3D satellite imagery to add photographic detail to any destination search, and it can also read updates to Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as getting weather and traffic updates in real time. If the A3 were autonomous, a person in the driver’s seat could keep working – or playing – without worrying about finding the fastest route around all the traffic on the way to and from the office every day.
If you’re in a car that can take care of the driving itself and let you do other things, you probably want to minimize the number of stops you’ll need to take on any long trip. The best way to do that? Turn the vehicle with the longest range on a single tank of gas into a self-driver. We built a list highlighting vehicles with the longest range, and the top spot on that list was taken by the Ram 1500 Diesel with the optional 32-gallon gas tank. Providing over 750 miles of range in that version, the Ram 1500 could get you from Boston to Detroit without a single stop for gas, although we’re pretty sure you’d find another reason or two to take pit stops on that journey.
Of course, the Ram 1500’s impressive range comes as much from its powertrain as it does the 32-gallon fuel tank. If real efficiency is what we’re after, little comes close to matching the best-in-class fuel economy of the brand new 2016 Toyota Prius. In addition to a drag co-efficient of .25, the Prius Eco trims — now using lithium-ion batteries, rather than the old nickel-metal hydride ones — are capable of 58 mpg city/53 highway/56 combined. A self-driving Ram 1500 diesel might spare you some trips to the pump, but an autonomous Prius would help you save some serious coin, and that’s never a bad thing.
Probably the most appealing change self-driving technology could bring to the roads would be the alleviation of traffic, especially on the city streets. City cars would be changed forever. Just imagine roads packed with fully autonomous smart fortwos. Though they may not be everyone’s favorite car, imagine how many you could fit on the road with their tiny wheelbases. No human error means you can fit two in a lane and drive bumper-to-bumper at moderate speeds without worrying about human control. This scenario might be appealing only to the daily city driver, but it would be a surefire way to drastically reduce commute times. Think about how much more pleasant and productive your day would be without the maddening frustrations of the day-to-day commute… although that image can seem a little dystopian for auto enthusiasts.
Of course, an alternative approach to traffic alleviation would be to think bigger. As it moves securely into place as the replacement for the long-standing E-Series Passenger van, the Ford Transit Passenger offers about the most seating you can find in a consumer vehicle. With seating for up to 15, the Transit Passenger is the next best thing to owning a city bus. It’s car-pooling brought to the next level. If you’re moving a very large group of people, there really isn’t much of an alternative. Likewise, if you need to transport a very large amount of stuff, then the other member of the Transit family, the Ford Transit Cargo, will do you some good.
Okay, so the Ford Transit is definitely the self-driving car of choice when the task is transporting as many people as possible, but what does it offer in terms of entertainment? A Transit may fit 12 without an issue, but a 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is the only option when trying to keep living cargo entertained. Specially designed to keep young, restless humans occupied, the Pacifica is available with a rear-seat theater entertainment system, complete with twin 10-inch touchscreen HD displays. A self-driving Pacifica would open its hands-free sliding doors and invite you to kick back, relax, and enjoy an autonomous ride.
Sure, self-driving tech will provide ample to time for you to catch up on the ever-increasing catalogue of TV series and movies available for your viewing pleasure, but let’s say you don’t want to spend your newfound time staring at a screen. Why not take in the view and really enjoy the sights around or above you? The Hyundai Santa Fe may be the autonomous vehicle of choice for sightseers. Its panoramic sunroof basically runs from the windshield to the cargo area, giving you some of the best visibility offered by a vehicle. Every one of its 7 passengers is guaranteed to have a great view of their surroundings. With a self-driving Santa Fe, everyone can just take in the sights, or even gaze at the stars, while the car itself worries about the road.
Volvo has focused hard on safety since the company’s founding in 1927. That focus has received lots of attention over the years, especially after the company pledged that by 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo. Blind-spot monitors and cross-traffic alerts are available in lots of new cars these days, but the new Volvo XC90‘s City Safety system takes things further, constantly monitoring the road ahead for other vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians and applying the brakes and turning off the throttle if it thinks a collision is imminent. (Now that the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick Plus rating requires automatic emergency braking, we’re sure more cars will offer it.) With lane-keeping and parking assistance, too, the XC90 can help with some of the tedious and tricky stuff already – we can’t wait to see it do the whole job and do it as safely as possible.
The XC90’s an important and fantastic car, but it costs enough that many of us will have to settle for watching it drive other people rather than enjoying that safe, relaxing ride ourselves. What if one of the least expensive new cars available in America could be had as an autonomous car? One of the most difficult things autonomous cars have to deal with is cars driven by human beings, so as long as that technology remains available only to folks who can afford flagships, American highways won’t see the full benefits of self-driving cars. But self-driving tech isn’t free, so adding it to any car will require some sort of tradeoff, and the Nissan Versa isn’t loaded with unnecessary luxuries. We have seen word, though, of another future new-car feature we’d happily forsake to reduce costs and make autonomous cars more affordable: Cortana in the car. But isn’t that an option my boss should finance anyway?
Ah, but there we go again… a self-driving Nissan Versa is the very epitome of car as appliance. No, no, no, what we really want is luxury. Possibly no car in history provides more impressive luxury than a well-optioned Bentley Mulsanne. The Mulsanne offers nearly 42 inches of rear legroom, which is good, because we like to stretch out when drinking champagne (stored in the Mulsanne’s refrigerated bottle cooler — a $10,970 option). Of course, one doesn’t earn enough for a Mulsanne through all play and no work, so we’d appreciate the iPad picnic tables option, too – it’s relatively steep at $13,225, but we’ll get much more use out of it now that we don’t have to worry about driving.
What car would you want to see drive itself?
–John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
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