SS: That virtually immeasurable thing.
JK: Right, how? If you could, you could say, all right, so they're at least as good as us. Let's get them going, because the one thing for sure is that the improvement rate is going to be better for this technology than a human. Because we learn from every car, in every interaction, across the entire fleet nearly instantaneously.
SS: I can't help wondering what else keeps you guys up nights.
JK: The challenge is, society—policy and the regulatory environment—might not warmly embrace [the technology]. We should, if we can come up with metrics that say, look, we're better than the average human driver. But it's going to be hard to do that, because right now, again, it's human error compared to machine error. As a species, we're more prepared to accept human error. We should be agnostic to these things. We should be choosing the thing that leads to the greatest net social value.
"We have amazing capability to adapt and innovate. I think we'll always have cars that are a blast to drive."
SS: Why a Caterham and a 911? You once said that you'd never get rid of either.
JK: I love those two cars for completely different reasons. The 911 is the perfect manifestation of an initial idea that was sort of okay but not brilliant. But through 50 years of refinement, Japanese kaizen, you make this awesome machine. The Caterham is the opposite of that, right? Colin Chapman sort of put the Lotus Seven down, almost perfect from the start. And it received no kaizen, very little care, throughout its life cycle. It too is now over 50 years old. And it too is just an awesome car. It came out nearly perfect.
SS: You said earlier that it's in a shop in L.A., waiting on a motor swap. Why not just get a different Cat?
JK: Sentimental. I don't think I can ever get rid of either of those two cars. I worry that I'm going to feel the same way about my Polestar.
SS: Polestar? Like, Volvo?
JK: Do you know this car? Have you driven it?
SS: I do. I get it and I don't. Is yours the Smurf-blue one in the parking lot?
JK: I actually bought it in black, and I regretted it. So I wrapped it in Rebel Blue. It's sort of weird.
SS: Might be an understatement.
JK: [Laughs.] I know. They made 80 of them.
SS: I sometimes wonder how much longer we have with stuff like this. Every few years, somebody writes that this golden age of automobiles is about to end. Then Dodge spits out a Hellcat, or the Bugatti Chiron happens. How long before that tide goes back out?
JK: I don't think it can.
JK: Yeah. We have amazing capability to adapt and innovate, and maybe the center of gravity moves from internal combustion to electric or even hydrogen fuel cell. Who knows? I think we'll always have cars that are a blast to drive. What will go away is the drudgery. It's not the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny Sunday morning. That's part of the myth that we create, both in my old world and in your current world. It doesn't really reflect most people's experiences.
SS: People far more educated than I am believe that it's eventually going to become harder to drive yourself. Whether through taxation or costly insurance policies, it's just going to be deeply discouraged.
JK: I think it's super far off. We humans travel, in the U.S., this pretty amazing number—3.2 trillion miles per year. About 10 trillion globally. I think there will remain human-driven miles for many, many years. So I don't think that's anything we'll see.
SS: Did you ever go look at that MR2 from the ad?
JK: Nah. They didn't reply. [Face falls a little.]
SS: The look on your face when you said that was like, "f***ers."
JK: No, I totally wanted that car and they stopped corresponding with me by text. Actually, the text string is hilarious.
Interview has been edited for length. Special thanks to Caterham distributor Beachman Racing for loan of the CSR, and for going above and beyond the call of delivery duty.
Levels of Automation*
L1 An assistance program, like electronic stability control or cruise control, where a human driver does most of the work. The most common form of automation.
L2 Assistance programs steer the car and control both drivetrain and braking. This includes most currently available "super cruise" systems, like Tesla's Autopilot.
L3 The car can drive itself in a specific environment but requires a human overseer.
L4 The car drives itself in a specific environment, no human intervention needed.
*According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration–The outline used be Google's X.