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In defense of driving

Like nearly every industry, automotive companies showed up in full force last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas touting the latest advancements in technology. It’s an era of disruption within the industry due to brands like Tesla re-defining performance and efficiency through technology. For all of the mind-boggling feats of engineering and product design, it was the advancements beyond the hardware that I find the most interesting.

I grew up in a culture obsessed with the automobile and the independence and freedom it represents. This sentiment was reflected back at us in the way car companies sold and positioned their products. Whether it be BMW positioned as “the ultimate driving machine” or VW’s “Drivers wanted.” campaign, the message was clear—we not only romance the idea of being out on the open road, but also that being a driver “on the road of life” means being behind the wheel, master of your environment and destiny.

These ideals remain strong. But as new technologies integrate with our cars, it’s worth pausing to consider its effect on the drive. The thrill of the drive used to lie in speed, power, and independence. The technology we bring into our vehicles has impacted each of these traits, arguably eroding them rather than enhancing them.

Instructed by GPS, embellished with wearable tech, and connected to our phones and homes, the drive has been transformed by technology, to the point of being unrecognizable. Where once we found freedom, we now stay connected. Where once we found independence, we are now interrupted by constant prompts for interaction. Where once we sought space to think, we now aren’t required to think at all.

For every advancement and benefit technology brings to our lives there inevitably comes certain costs, and driving is no different. Events like CES celebrate technology as a simplifying, enhancing, problem solving force. But as its effects on the drive remind us, it can also be a destructive one.

So maybe we need different types of technology - tools that block out the noise rather than amplify it. Our colleagues in London have been looking into this need as part of their work for a local e-hailing app. Speaking to WOLO strategist Zami Majuqwana, she observed: “The competition are all about embellishing the journey with music, electronics, syncs and sockets. We’ve found the one thing people want from a ride is the one thing these tricks take away – space to think, time to unwind, a pause rather than a fast-forward.”

Technology gives us a lot, but the one finite resource that seems to be in shorter supply is time. Being more productive while in transit may help me save time elsewhere in my life, but where’s the time to do nothing? As a culture, we’re increasingly running out of “shower time”, places we’re forced to unplug and be alone with our thoughts. The need for productivity will, no doubt, march on, but what if we designed our rides around all of our needs, not only to allow for more connection, but also to disconnect and recharge.

There is an opportunity for a fundamental shift in the way car companies see themselves in drivers’ lives. With further advancements, such as self-driving cars, we may as a culture begin to shift from the question “How do I get from point A to point B as quickly and cheaply as possible?” to “How do I get the most (functionally and emotionally) out of the time I spend on the journey?”

The implications of the auto industry shifting it’s mindset —from a product focused on the drive to a service focused on the journey—are immense. Designing both smarter products and services built around the user and their needs can lead us to redefine “power”, less as the result of engineering helping me get where I want a few minutes faster, and more about being in control of the way I chose to spend my entire ride. A shift from seeing oneself as a “driver” only when they’re behind the wheel, to being a “driver” in their life by getting the most out of the time they spend on the road.