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.
“We sell entertainment, not transportation,” said Jens Ludmann, the company’s chief operating officer. McLaren’s success, he said, depends on its customers enjoying the driving experience.
“We have teams monitoring autonomy and connectivity to see whether and how some features could become part of that experience,” Mr. Ludmann said. For example, he suggested, future McLaren cars could be programmed to automatically pay parking and fueling fees on the street and indicate the best line through a corner on the track.
Other applications, Mr. Ludmann suggested, could include artificial intelligence — perhaps featuring augmented-reality systems with virtual competitors and automatic interventions to keep drivers safe during high-speed maneuvers.
McLaren buyers are already offered real-life driving coaches who provide track-based training using video cameras and reference laps to build a new buyer’s confidence and competence, corner by corner. Autonomous technology, Mr. Ludmann said, could someday provide McLaren owners with a virtual driving coach able to provide assistance whenever they feel the need, on the road or on the track.
“We don’t see autonomous operation as a threat,” he said. “After all, we are a technology company. We can pick and choose which areas of automation to explore.”
Automakers generally categorize autonomy across five levels: Level 1 is limited to warning lights and screens. Level 2 provides independent driver operation but with accident avoidance systems. Level 3 offers autonomy but requires a human driver who can take over at any time. Level 4 cars are capable of full autonomous operation under most circumstances, but a nominal driver remains present. Level 5 vehicles contain only passengers.
Neither McLaren nor Acura sees itself offering full-on Level 4 or Level 5 cars anytime soon. Even if that day comes, “I’ll want mine to be good-looking, and if I’m going to have a virtual driver, he better be Ayrton Senna,” Mr. Marek said, referring to the late Formula One champion.
Mr. Marek believes autonomous vehicles will offer new opportunities for innovation. For example, with minimal requirements for instrument panels, steering wheels and transmission tunnels, designers will have greater freedom to craft spacious interiors at the same time they sculpt “shrink-wrapped” exteriors that hug engines, drive trains and wheels.
Mr. Marek, who judges classics at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Carmel, Calif., predicted that in decades to come, people would go to car shows featuring autonomous vehicles and “marvel at the beauty they see.”
Even if those vehicles are the products of computer software, “design is timeless,” he said. “The sense of craftsmanship and human soul will always be there.”
Calvin Ku, an ArtCenter graduate student in transportation systems and design, believes “a partnership experience” should be the goal for autonomous car designers. In preparing his thesis, “Enthusiast Autonomous Experiences,” Mr. Ku took up horseback riding and tango dancing to study ways of strengthening the link between driver and vehicle.
He found that the relationship between horse and rider, and between dancers, deepens over time, until each partner learns to read the other’s movements instinctively. Similarly, autonomous cars and their drivers should become “intelligent companions in a dynamic, visceral and evolving relationship,” Mr. Ku wrote.
Enthusiast marques like McLaren already tune their cars’ computers to adjust spring rates, tire pressure, aerodynamic balance and more to driving conditions. Artificial intelligence could further allow autonomous cars to adjust themselves to each driver’s life patterns. Like a horse that senses it’s time to head for the stable, Mr. Ku said, “the car could realize it’s Friday and you want a vanilla milkshake, and take the next freeway exit.”
Once lingering safety concerns are resolved, the longtime auto executive Bob Lutz — credited with leading the introduction of the Dodge Viper, the Pontiac GTO and other iconic models — sees autonomous cars as inevitable. Populous urban areas can no longer solve their surface transportation problems solely with owner-operated cars, he said during the panel in Scottsdale.
Self-driving vehicles will “close some doors but open others,” Mr. Lutz said. Like the machines that freed their owners from the limitations of the horse and buggy, autonomous vehicles will broaden the horizons further.
“They’ll provide another kind of freedom,” he said, “saving time and allowing you to do anything you want. You can have breakfast, drink a martini or read a book. You can even go to sleep.”