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What A Self-Taught, Semi-Pro Drag Boat Racer Has In Common With Self-Driving Developers

It might seem crazy that Mike Finnegan — host of one of America’s most popular car enthusiast shows — would sit down with Bryan Salesky, founder of one of the world’s largest self-driving technology companies, but it really isn’t. If car culture and automated vehicles are both going to thrive in the future, the two communities need to talk about how to make that happen.

I’ve been a car enthusiast my whole life, and I was skeptical of self-driving for a long time. Not of the technology, but of the hype. I buy the idea that new technologies can and should make our roads safer. I also hate driving in traffic. But about five years ago, a subset of self-driving “evangelists” began trumpeting not only its imminent arrival, but the end of private car ownership and human driving altogether.

This was not the future I was looking for.

It also didn’t seem very realistic. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to know that nothing happens overnight. From ships to trains, electricity, elevators and planes, world-changing inventions generally take decades to become ubiquitous. Invention is barely the end of the beginning. Someone has to build the business. People have to want it.

This renaissance man behind “Roadkill” and “Finnegan’s Garage” learns by doing. From his home base in Atlanta, Mike Finnegan (right) shares his take on the decline of apprenticeships and how self-driving technology could make drag racing safer.

Those people are us. If someone says I can have something “better” at the expense of something I love, well, that just doesn’t sit right with me.

In my future, I’m free to choose what I own and how I get there. I have more choices, and my choices are always improving. The car I buy will have better driver assistance. The self-driving taxi I ride in will become increasingly safer than I am and work in more of the places I want to go. Eventually I won’t think twice about sleeping in the back of my self-driving car.

I want safety and freedom, and there’s no reason the two should conflict, unless you listen to those with a different agenda. That technology should serve us. We build it. We vote for it with our dollars. We have a choice in whose self-driving technology we welcome onto our roads. I want it to be from people who share my values.

Then in 2018 I had a very interesting conversation with Bryan Salesky. He didn’t try to sell me with a crazy launch date. He said things that made sense. I love driving. Self-driving is a hard problem. It’s going to take time. We’ve got to earn people’s trust. We’re not coming for your car.

We talked about how many people would love a self-driving option, but might be scared off by headlines about losing their cars. We talked about how safety isn’t a distant goal, but table stakes. We talked about how self-driving vehicles will coexist with human driven cars for a long time. We talked about how many people might be scared about automation and potential job loss.

These weren’t topics the self-driving community was openly talking about.

And then it clicked.

“What if,” Bryan asked, “we go out and talk to the people who care about these things as much as we do?”

We started making a list of potential guests for a podcast that didn’t exist yet, and Mike Finnegan was right at the top. No one’s ever going to take his car keys. His whole career is about making things that move better, faster and cooler. He’s self-taught, self-made, and believes in fixing things himself.

And like Bryan, he’s into really fast boats.

Two years later I got Finnegan on the phone. I explained that Bryan was a huge fan, and a few weeks later we were standing in Mike’s legendary garage with the man himself. The two of them hit it off before I could set up the recorder, and pretty soon Mike was explaining how dangerous it was to test his new boat build’s top speed with a person onboard, and Bryan was offering to automate it so Mike wouldn’t have to be.

But the most interesting part of the conversation was when they got philosophical about consumerism, and working with one’s hands.

“We need to fix things,” Finnegan says. “It’s a cultural thing… We want smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper things. And things get so cheap, you don’t repair them. You just throw them away and get another one.”

“To build real things,” Bryan adds, “you actually need people to know how to work with their hands, not just keyboards.”

It’s fascinating to hear two people with such different resumes agree on so much. Although there will undoubtedly be purists among hard-core enthusiasts and self-driving evangelists, the common ground between Mike and Bryan makes it clear to me the communities can and will co-exist, if the rational voices keep talking.

Which is a good lesson for us all.

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