Dave Marek knows exactly what he wants to hear from potential buyers.
“It’s my 10 second rule,” said Mr. Marek, who as Acura’s executive creative director oversees the carmaker’s designs around the world. “I want them to walk around our car and say: ‘Wow! I want to ride in that!’”
But what happens to that passion when the driver’s only role is to sit passively as an autonomous car glides through traffic and zips down highways?
“Whether they’re autonomous or not, we will always want our creations to evoke emotion,” said Mr. Marek, also a part-time professor of transportation design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
Not everyone shares his optimism. Cars have long been more than mere machines, and some drivers ask: Do autonomous cars risk being anonymous? At what level of automation could car enthusiasts become unenthusiastic?
At a “Why Driving Matters” panel in Scottsdale, Ariz., in January, McKeel Hagerty, whose namesake firm insures vintage autos and sponsored the discussion, spoke fondly of the 1967 Porsche he bought while a teenager — and still owns.
“The car requires your full attention,” he said, “and I love it for that.”
For many motorists, car memories come crowded with kids, trips, dogs and relatives. Mr. Hagerty recalled years of working on the old Porsche with his father and their shared joy when the car finally ran. “I can’t ever replace that,” he said.
“For me, being in a car without a lot of electronics means being present with myself,” Mr. Hagerty added. “I’m a different person when I’m driving on the open roads we have in northern Michigan. I don’t have my head down, looking at some digital device.”
Appearing on the same panel, Wayne Carini, a longtime restorer and the presenter of the “Chasing Classic Cars” television series, also described the emotional attachment people often feel for their cars. He spoke of his quiet drives with an autistic daughter.
“We don’t talk much,” Mr. Carini said, “but we’re doing something together. Cars are part of our lives.”
Even so, Mr. Marek and other automakers contend they can successfully collaborate with autonomy in ways that preserve — and even enhance — the attachment that owners feel to their vehicles. The British automaker McLaren, for example, heralds the ability of its six-figure sports cars to deliver exhilaration in the form of a “perfectly blended and balanced” driving experience.
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