Open Letter to David Freiburger of Hot Rod

I felt compelled to write in response to you two most recent backpage columns in Hotrod, one on autonomy, the next on the father son road trip. The first disappointed me enormously, the second coming so close after it made me keen to write. I do hope you read and think about what I have here !

Firstly, thank you for being the insightful, passionate carguy that you are. I love Roadkill, but it is the backpage columns in Hotrod which have really inspired me. I should say I am a 45 year old Brit living in California for 15 years, working as a motoring historian. Always a car guy, some years ago I spoke to some Universities about “doing a PhD in Car History”, and that led me to co- teaching a class “Tales To Design Cars By” with Stanford University.

Yes, those guys leading development of the autonomous car. I have seen these engineers work, approach and attitudes up close, met the reps from the car companies looking to hire these brilliant minds as they write research grant checks to the University, while I lecture about the history of motor sports, Formula 1 in particular.

I also volunteer at Pebble Beach each year. I’m the only guy with a beater muscle car in the volunteer parking, I can tell you! I had the freakish good fortune to have a dinner a few years ago with Ralph Gillies and Moray Callum, who I was astonished to learn are good friends. Having established they were true car guys, and having each had some wine, I asked “This autonomous electrification horrorshow, can we stop it?”. They made eye contact, and then simultaneously said “No”.

That was 3 years ago: can I underline any more deeply just how long ago that horse left the stable? In Beijing, London, Singapore, Berlin, Macau and Sydney they want autonomous electric cars. We can all see/smell tail pipe emissions, but not those from coal powered power stations. None of us have to see all the damage mining for all the weird minerals they need to make electric car batteries has done to the environment, so that makes electricity politically acceptable where gas is not. It may be dumb, but this is where the weight of global public opinion is headed. [I have seen this show before: growing up in Europe I watched diesel cars, which I always hated due to their low revving engines, almost replace gasoline amongst european cars, only now for it to be “discovered” that diesel is more harmful than we thought]

You are also right to parse out the levels of autonomy, and recognize that everyone dreams of a “drink 10 beers and have the car drive me home while I sleep” utopia, but we are going to end up with an awful halfway house where you have to stay awake while the car drives itself. Look back to the dawn of motoring and you will see how quickly they moved from barely having the technology at all to executing on the vision of mobility. The 10 beer utopia isn’t 5 or 10 years away, but it is well within your and my natural lifetimes.

As die hard driving = independance car guys, you and I may agree this is all extremely dumb, but it is reality. My argument here is that the change is too far gone for us to fight it by digging in our heels.

Instead, we need to make sure human drivers and gas cars are not legislated off the road. My son, like yours, is inspired by an adventurous road trip. We need to be looking forwards and making sure they will be able to drive themselves in our cars on those trips in future. Outside of cities, where there is actual open road, and extreme weather, traditional vehicles have a long future. For a ranch in Montana, today’s F250 diesel is going to remain better at the job than any autonomous/electrified piece of futurism. One size, one law does not fit all: the smog laws of the seventies were perhaps right for Los Angeles, but there was no need to inflict thermostatic carburettors on rural Minnesota car mechanics. People like you and I need to be involved in educating both sides of the fence!!!

Bob Lutz wrote that the future of motoring is on Dude Ranches. In this future car guys like ourselves can enjoy them and know that future car enthusiasts will have access to gas to enjoy them too. In that future, all the people who don’t care about cars and driving can get around in these awful airport monorail style autonomous pods if they want them and that is completely separate from cars, our hobby. To me, every track day, super car experience, Hot Rod Power tour, Zip Tie Drags, Woodward Avenue event show that this Dude Ranch culture is already with us, ready to be nurtured by the next generation. (Although Lutz was probably thinking about those swanky country club road courses like Monticello Motor Club which are springing up.)

The risk if we don’t respond to the change positively, and act decisively – the way the formation of SEMA allowed speed equipment makers to survive emissions legislation – our hobby will disappear, just like the drag strips of LA have. The next generation might love cars, but we will have failed to leave them able to enjoy them.

Dude, you have so much reach and influence in your SVP role at TEN yet with the oil on the fingers credibility of a real hotrodder, please don’t hate on autonomy, let the non-car guys have it, and make sure we build such a strong Dude Ranch infrastructure that our sons will be able to have the kind of on and off road Roadkill motoring adventures that we enjoy.

Let me end with a call to action: come to campus and meet some of the engineers, you’ll understand autonomy better when you’ve seen under the hood. Or come to the Historic Vehicle Association conference, and talk with us about the future of the old car movement. Let’s ensure we build the kind of motoring experience we love into future conceptions of mobility, travel, and driving.

That, at least, is my goal. I hope you, of all people, “get” it. Lord knows, most people don’t.