Car Culture: Ghost Bikes and Bipolar Carmakers

On a two-lane country road not far from my house stands a stark and simple reminder of how desperately the world needs self-driving cars.

It’s a “ghost bike” that’s spray-painted white and nestled among the tall grass and wildflowers. A sign hanging from the bike says it was “placed in tribute to a bicyclist killed in a car crash.”

Not far away on I-94, an LED billboard flashes the number of traffic fatalities on Michigan roads in real time. The last time I drove past it, the grim tally for this year was 664. Michigan is one of nine states posting these scary statistics on roadways to reinforce the importance of focused driving.

Of course, critics of ghost bikes and fatality billboards say they may be just another driver distraction.

I’m bothered, not by these modest attempts to call attention to the 1.3 million deaths on global roads every year, but by a bipolar auto industry that straddles two worlds.

2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon.jpgIn one, old-school products like the new 840-hp Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, said to be the “fastest quarter-mile production car ever,” dominate automotive headlines and create excitement at dealerships. On the flip side, automakers such as Volvo post videos that say we “don’t understand how automakers think. They keep making cars for racetracks instead of city streets.”

Transitions are tough and some carmakers seem to be clinging to the old ways of creating and selling cars as a new era looms.

I side with automakers like Tesla and Volvo, who are steering boldly toward an autonomous future, and I dream about a world where organizations like MADD have to close up shop because there’s no need for them.

I think about my friend Debi Madeleine, who could never sleep when her teenage kids were out driving around on a Saturday night. She would have a moment of panic when she heard the whistle of a passing locomotive and pray that they would not “try to beat the train.” Would self-driving cars put an end to the fears of parents like Debi?

Are big thinkers at Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler considering a world without muscle cars? Why would you need a Mustang, Camaro or Charger in a self-driving world or, for that matter, a 707-hp Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk? How will buyers display their style or status in a car that doesn’t have a steering wheel or pedals? Is this the final chapter of automotive design?

But even a self-driving advocate like me is struggling to come to grips with a future that includes turning over control of the car to artificial intelligence.

Volvo V90 1.jpgI realized this after recently putting 500 miles on a 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country wagon with the semi-autonomous Pilot Assist feature – one of the building blocks on the road to self-driving cars. I drove the car from southeastern Michigan to Mackinaw City and back on a summer vacation.

Volvo V90 2.jpgPilot Assist works with adaptive cruise control and helps to steer the car at certain speeds, although if you take your hands off the wheel, you get a warning on the dashboard to put them back on. It can sometimes seem as if you’re wrestling with the car to take control of the wheel. But the idea is to keep you safe and have a smart backup system.

Features like Pilot Assist are part of Volvo’s ambitious Vision 2020 and its pledge that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020.

Volvo V90 3.jpgPilot Assist is standard on the Cross Country, along with a pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection system. My test car was priced at $69,440, including several options packages.

Tech solutions like this are expensive and some buyers probably would rather spend their money on the showy Demon or Trackhawk instead of being in the vanguard of self-driving cars.

If I were a Volvo salesperson, a test drive past a ghost bike would be a mandatory part of my pitch.

Credit: 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon photo from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. All other photos: Anita Lienert

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