In a World of Self-Driving Cars, We’ll Still Need the Miata
What will you do when driving is no longer a necessity, but a pastime?
Sure, the shift to self-driving cars will come gradually, but sooner than many people think. You’ve already seen it happening with things like lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control, not to mention Tesla’s “Summon” feature. It’s exciting, and I know a surprising number of drivers eager to let go of the steering wheel. And some of them love driving.
But as working the wheel and pedals becomes more hobby than chore, I believe some will pursue it, and become especially picky about what they drive when they take the wheel.
You might be happy setting the autopilot on your crossover and kicking back to enjoy the scenery or a book during that day-long slog across Texas. But what about the exhilarating, challenging curves of Pacific Coast Highway through California, the Sawmill Parkway in New York, or Highway 129 in North Carolina? People are going to want something special for such a trip.
I see sales of roadsters and sporty sedans spiking, and the market for collector cars surging as people snap up soulful cars, from the early Subaru WRX and Acura Integra to the Ford Mustang GT and that mid-’80s Audi Quattro coupe you always wanted. In a world of clinical robotic vehicles, engaging cars will grow ever more precious, no matter how impractical they seem.
So have you started shopping?
I am fortunate enough to already have such a car, a 1995 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It’s like I started preparing for this moment decades ago, though the new fourth-generation version is similarly satisfying.
When Mazda introduced the Miata in 1989, I sat in one at an auto show and knew I had to have it. It took years to scrape the money together, but I’ve never regretted it—and I’ve driven all manner of modern machinery that trounces my wonderful little car in nearly every measure of performance and safety.
Everything about a Miata requires effort, from opening the door and turning the key to using the steering wheel, pedals and shifter. (Oh, that shifter! It’s glorious.) Its tiny four-cylinder engine puts out just 128 horsepower, requiring me to shift often and keep the revs up. Steering is just barely power-assisted, so best done with both hands.
It’s work, but the sort that comes with a sense of accomplishment, of engagement with a machine, of connection to the texture of the road. That’s increasingly vanished from today’s cars, but you find it in the Miata, in the Acura Integra, in the air-cooled Porches. In these beings, driving isn’t a task, it’s a sport.
Years ago, before marriage and children, I often drove my Miata 160 miles to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. My stints along those scenic, rural roads with the top down and sun shining are among my most memorable drives.
Too bad I can carry just one of our two young sons at a time, so using the Miata for the morning drop-off usually is more trouble than it’s worth. And I’m not sure it’s legal (or wise) to carry young children in a two-seater with airbags you can’t disengage. Still, the kids love it, and giving them the occasional joy ride is a treat worth the risk.
In the long run, though, I must consider the possibility that an autonomous vehicle could bring our family together in a way the little convertible can’t. A few times each year we drive from our home in New Jersey to Deer Isle, Maine. The kids don’t relish the 500-mile ride, but music, movies, conversation, and occasional stops for snacks keep them occupied. If the car were driving and we were riding, the conversation could be richer. I wouldn’t be so tired. My wife and I might even use the time to write the novels we’ve talked about for years.
We wouldn’t miss much in terms of dynamic driving. We typically follow the Garden State Parkway, interstates 84 and 95, and a monotonous stretch of I-495 through Massachusetts we call the armpit. I’d happily defer to the computer chauffeur.
But on the right trips and the right roads, I will forever reserve the option of doing the driving myself. The lure of the road and the romanticism of a long drive are universal. I don’t see that changing, even with autonomous vehicles just over the horizon. At least not in my family. My boys, who are 8 and 12, already fight over who will inherit the Miata.