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2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon at the dragstrip (image: FiatChrysler).

Does autonomy have room for the ‘engineer enthusiast?’

It’s no secret that car companies cultivate the “engineer enthusiasts” in their ranks to work on niche models and other special projects intended to demonstrate that company’s engineering expertise or connection with automotive culture. Ford Performance (nee SVT), Mercedes-Benz AMG, Dodge SRT, BMW M and others are long-recognized in the industry—and to aficionados.

To now, this was most typical in the performance realm, where the models that end up in showrooms provide a “halo” for the more-mainstream products. After a recent morning with FiatChrysler’s engineer enthusiasts at the Dodge brand, I wonder—and worry—if their type of often unconventional gusto will be transferrable to automated-driving development.

Jim Wilder, Vehicle Development Manager – SRT Challenger/Charger and his squad were at a Michigan dragstrip on a gorgeous Fall morning to help a dozen or so journalists figure out the best method for ripping the audacious, 840-hp Challenger SRT Demon down the quarter-mile strip. Wilder and the rest of his team exhibited immense patience in the face of repeated ham-handed attempts to juggle the multitude of inputs required to properly launch the Demon-missile. But there was something more. These guys were actually enjoying it.

I mean noses-on-the-tarmac, verifying-the-grip into it. If some schlep’s pre-drag burnout to heat the tires didn’t satisfy the SRT tech in charge, he’d ask the driver back up and do it again. Our times that morning didn’t matter one whit to anybody except these enthusiasts who were insistent on getting their car to tear off the best-possible quarter-mile run—regardless of who’s driving.

“It never gets old for them, does it?” I remarked to one of the Dodge personnel.

“It absolutely doesn’t,” she smiled, as we watched an engineer gesticulating from the passenger seat to a journalist he was exhorting to improve his launch technique.

In the Demon earlier with Wilder, he mentioned he’s been drag-racing since he was 21, or about a quarter-century ago. In the last decade, he’s had less time to do his own racing – not the least because of his development work on the Demon. I asked him how many dragstrip runs he’d done to get this monster to its outlandish sub-10-sec times.

“Probably around a thousand, give or take.”

On the way home, the gravity of that hit me. Hurtling the Demon down the dragstrip was one of the most violent experiences I can recall (you’re at 60 mph in just over two seconds). This man repeated that a thousand times or more. He likes drag-racing, sure—but c’mon. On a good weekend, a serious dragger might make what, 20 runs? I tried to imagine the intensity of a thousand.

Will this kind of engineer-enthusiast have a place in the development of vehicles designed not to be driven?

There may be hope. I’ve found the ranks of the engineer-enthusiast are filled by those who like to bend the rules, who thrive on squeezing something more out of the equation than others can derive. Is it possible an engineer-enthusiast artificial-intelligence programmer might, for instance, determine that applying additional throttle and steering around an obstacle might be the best solution in a certain situation?

I pray that’s how it turns out. I don’t want soulless vehicles following soulless driving regimes. I hope enthusiast-engineers find a home challenging the still-unwritten rules of autonomy, that there are those who will want to make my self-driving car behave more satisfyingly, more actively than passively. Automated driving truly will be dreary if some thousand-race engineers aren’t involved.

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