I just leased a new car that parallel parks itself. It’s a weird experience. Wonderfully weird. Once you slow to 20 MPH a green P comes on your dashboard, letting you know it’s searching for a spot. Once you stop and hit reverse the onboard computer takes over, maneuvering you into a perfect three point turn and stopping exactly the right distance from the car parked in front of you.

It doesn’t end there. A warning bell sounds as you approach an object in the front or rear and hit the six inch mark.  On the highway, if you stray toward the lane mark on the left or right, the steering wheel vibrates a warning. If you attempt to change lanes with a vehicle in your blind spot, this car ignores your direction and veers back into your lane.  It’s about as close as you can get to a machine thinking for you.   

I’ve been reading articles that indicate we are closer than we might have imagined to a day when cars will drive themselves. It won’t quite be the way The Jetsons' writers imagined it. We won’t be in flying saucers (yet). In New England and other pothole central cities like Chicago, we’ll still be getting flat tires. But, according to an article by Forbes “Self-Driving Cars Will Take Over By 2040”.

While it all sounds so cool, I’ve heard more than one person wonder out loud whether people will want it. There’s an obvious benefit to society if we can take the wheel away from stupid drivers, texters, those who unsuccessfully attend anger management, and of course, drunks. But what about the rest of us?  Will we be willing to relinquish control of the wheel (and the gas pedal)? True confessions. My new ride has more get up and go. I confess to testing it more than once, a temporary insanity brought on by moving from a V6 to a V8. I am the one in the family who is the brunt of jokes for adhering so closely to the speed limit.

The point is that as human beings we like being in charge of something in our lives, and one of them is how we drive our cars. It’s a guilty pleasure. We could take the bus or the train. But it isn’t quite as satisfying. Many of us relish the idea that we can hit the open road and take a left instead of a right on a whim. Like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway who realizes life post return from island isolation will never be the same, a chance meeting with a beautiful woman in a truck with a logo that matches his remaining FedEx delivery package is enough to inspire him to follow her. It’s just human nature to cherish being able to stand at a crossroads and allow instinct to guide us. Even if we ultimately go back to the office.

I’m sure the coming generation of automobiles will make allowances for these impulses. You’ll be able to reprogram. Still, the automating of our lives has prompted me to think about the implications. In a world that makes decisions for us, how much more will we crave the preciousness of autonomy?   

It has implications for leaders, who after all, are leading human beings. In business, as soon as people realize they don’t have the wheel, they stop steering. The moment they don’t get to put their feet on the gas pedal, they stop accelerating. When the decision to take a left or a right isn’t theirs, they’ll be along for the ride. If they’re about to run over a pothole, they won’t worry about getting a flat.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we take away autonomy and get less than we hope in return. We can spend gazillions on compensation and reward incentives, but if we don’t encourage our team members to take the wheel, drive the car, and feel the wind in their hair, then they won’t engage.          

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