Stefano Domenicali has abandoned his uniform. This is a man who, based on his public appearances, lives in suits worth more than your car. He is, after all, the CEO of Lamborghini. Any element of his appearance that doesn’t live up to the combination of wealth, style, and Italian-ness that his company represents would be an offense. Today he’s wearing the suit, but has left the collar of his perfectly pressed shirt unbuttoned. He isn’t wearing a tie.
He chose the casual look, he says, out of deference to the aggressively lenient sartorial sense of Silicon Valley. Domenicali is here on a fact-finding mission. He has come to explore the future of artificial intelligence and autonomous driving.
Of all the automakers on the planet, Lamborghini may have the least to gain from a world in which robots do all the driving, where ground transportation becomes more commodified good than personalized experience. After all, the company has built its brand on cars that are thrilling to drive. You can’t get chills from 740 horsepower and a naturally aspirated V-12 engine if you hand control over to some bore of a robot.
“The more everyone is pushing this kind of technology, the more we need to be different,” Domenicali says. “Our customer wants hands-on, fun to drive, to be at the center of this emotional experience.”
The CEO has crossed an ocean and a continent not to destroy the robots but to embrace them. He’s hanging out at Stanford University—a hub of self-driving research—and scoping startups because he sees an opportunity. Being different doesn’t mean ignoring technological advances. It means applying them to further Lamborghini’s not quite openly stated mission: making rich people feel awesome.
Sure, nobody needs 740 horsepower. But Lamborghini’s real problem is that very few people know how to wield it. The confident crash (and crash, and crash, and crash). The cautious never experience the frisson for which they’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lamborghini thinks artificial intelligence could help here, using the computer to keep the driver safe while showing her where she can push the gas pedal farther, shift gears sooner, make the turn sharper. “You can give a threshold where you can use the car, starting to have fun, but in a condition that you’ll never be scared,” says Lambo chief engineer Maurizio Reggiani. “This can be a tool for our customers, like having a tutor.”
The practical bits of this idea—when it might happen, what it would look like, how much it would cost—remain in the foggy future. Lamborghini’s still on a scouting mission. And it’s not the only company eyeing this sort of advance.
McLaren, a rival in the supercar world, has similar ideas about how artificial intelligence and autonomous driving capability could attract buyers. “The car basically takes you around the track at the right speed, the right RPMs, the right gears, the right line, and you learn through the car showing you the best way,” design director Frank Stephenson imagined in an interview with Blackbird. “Then you can take over on the next few laps, and if you make a mistake, the car can intervene.”
Toyota’s bosses say they’re less interested in fully autonomous vehicles than in what they call “guardian angel” tech, where the human does the driving but the robot can take control when a crash is imminent.
And just this week, Mitsubishi hopped onto the bandwagon. Its awkwardly named e-Evolution concept won’t just run on electric power, the automaker explained in a press release. It will offer an artificial intelligence system designed to teach humans how to be better drivers—evaluating their skills and offering advice for improvement.
Again, the details are hazy at best. These are all concepts from automakers eager to prove they’re ready for a changing world. But maybe the robots aren’t all intent on taking our place at the wheel. Maybe they’ll help us navigate, offering sage advice for the road ahead. Accelerate harder. Brake later. Loosen that tie.