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How autonomous cars will help Lincoln give BMW and Mercedes a run for their money

Chris Paukert explains why self-driving cars will trigger a fundamental change in the way luxury carmakers prioritize driving and handling, a paradigm shift that could be a windfall for underdog brands.

I've come to an uncomfortable conclusion: Lincoln is right. Comfort is more important than performance for the future of luxury cars.

For decades, wannabe and erstwhile prestige automakers have been chasing Germany with varying degrees of success, and much of the luxury race has centered upon nailing the so-called Teutonic driving dynamics of these brands: lusty powertrains and resolute damping along with firm-yet-communicative steering and brakes.

But the coming autonomous car is poised to change all of that. Dynamism, a somewhat nebulous driving attribute oft-cited in German press releases and car reviews, will no longer find itself near the top of luxury automaker priority lists. Buyers of self-driving automobiles won't care about steering feel, throttle response or transitional agility, if indeed they ever did. As much as we auto journalists might hate to admit it, an overwhelming majority of luxury shoppers probably don't even know which wheels power the cars in their garages, let alone appreciate the nuances of high-performance driving.

In other words, the comfort-first design of Lincoln's new Continental, which prioritizes 30-way power seats over 0-60 mph times, is proper long-term thinking. The Genesis G90, Hyundai's next-generation Equus, appears resolutely headed down the same track.

2017 Lincoln Continental

The 2017 Continental is more concerned with 30-way power massaging seats than corner carving.

Lincoln

As a card-carrying driving enthusiast, I don't come about this "dynamism disrupted" conclusion lightly -- or particularly happily.

The good news for our auto industry is that that nobody does this sort of luxury like America. US carmakers have decades upon decades of industry-leading plush to draw upon, from the Duesenbergs and Packards of the Twenties on up through the Cadillacs and Lincolns of the Fifties and Sixties, and the much-maligned "Yank Tanks" of the Seventies. As recently as 2005, Chrysler's then-new 300 showed that ladling traditional luxury with a heaping helping of design swagger could win buyers, and it's always seemed like Lincoln, Buick or Cadillac could once again apply those lessons on a brand-philosophy level. Autonomy will be car companies' permission slip to once again go for baroque -- not necessarily in the crushed-velvet seat cushions and nautical ride-quality sense, more in the "all the comforts of a modern home" vein.

Indeed, Lexus prospered under a similar lux-first mindset for years until Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda started chasing more emotional designs and engaging driving dynamics. Thus far, his strategy shift has produced a phalanx of ghastly-looking cars and SUVs with not-quite-there dynamics (IS and GS sedans excepted).

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The Vision Tokyo lounge on wheels can be manually controlled from a jump seat if you really must drive for yourself.

Mercedes-Benz

While not publicly acknowledging this fundamental shift, the Germans have begun planning for it. In some ways, that transition has been very public, with show cars like Mercedes-Benz's recent Vision Tokyo and F 015 concepts, the former of which Benz labeled "a mobile club lounge for young, urban trendsetters." In other ways, the shift has been more subtle, as with Benz's 2017 E-Class, the first production car with vehicle-to-vehicle [V-to-V] and vehicle-to-infrastructure [V-to-I] communications -- fundamental building blocks for our self-driving future.

Make no mistake, I'm not speaking of the next luxury model cycle, or maybe even the next two or three generations of product, which actually aren't that far out. Level 4 Autonomy, wherein cars effectively become steering-wheel-free living rooms, will be a reality in my lifetime. Further, it won't take decades and decades thereafter for human-piloted cars to become a minority on the verge of either being legislated out of existence or priced out of the realm of affordability for most people when insurance companies realize that what accidents that remain are overwhelmingly caused by human drivers.

Even before full autonomy enters the picture, the industry's comfort-first transition has already begun.

While the Chinese car market's rapid growth has slowed worryingly, the Middle Kingdom's rich culture of chauffeur-driven, comfort-first luxury vehicles is already having a profound effect on the way vehicles are designed for other markets -- North America included. Buick designers in the US can't do so much as alter the diameter of a cupholder without checking in with their Chinese colleagues first, and Asia's growing influence over cars from Volvo, Lincoln and even Bentley isn't to be denied.

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Chinese-owned Volvo has pledged to make its S90 the first car with semi-autonomous tech as standard equipment.

Volvo

Don't get me wrong -- our autonomous future doesn't necessarily mean we'll all be trundling around in Google Gumdrops at brisk walking speeds. In fact, I foresee the opposite. V-to-V and V-to-I communications should effectively eliminate most traffic jams and safely facilitate higher road speeds than ever before. But over the long haul, it does mean that too few drivers will care enough about cornering Gs or turn-in eagerness for most automakers to cater to them with their products. Concerns will instead center on smoothness of suspension and how imperceptibly vehicles can change direction without disrupting occupants' video streaming or power napping.

The winning luxury automakers of the future -- and indeed, the winning mass-market metal movers -- will be the companies that most fully embrace effortlessness in transportation. And I'm thinking not just in terms of the way those vehicles comport themselves on the move, but also the way they enable the seamless integration of our personal technologies, be they smartphones or connected home systems.

I'm not a Luddite. I welcome the day when there's a fully autonomous luxury car in my garage, one that I can send to pick up my aging parents, pick up the dry cleaning or simply make long-distance trips less taxing. But I'll still have my manual-transmission Mazda Miata parked next to it, and those are the keys I'll be reaching for 9 days out of 10 -- at least as long as I'm allowed to do so.

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