Why You'll Never See a Hybrid, Self-Driving Rolls-Royce

The Rolls-Royce Phantom is the pinnacle of ultra-luxurious motoring. But it doesn’t have any kind of autonomous or hybrid technology—for a very good reason.

Rolls-Royce

“We’re the world’s oldest autonomous brand,” Giles Taylor tells me jokingly. The head of Rolls-Royce design, Taylor—who gave the all-new 2018 Phantom its spooky, imposing grandeur—has a point: Most Rolls-Royce owners throughout history have left the driving to a chauffeur. But today, when the largest automakers are racing to offer ever-advancing levels of semi-autonomous capability, you can’t get any sort of self-driving tech in a brand-new Rolls. And the reason why has to do with the British automaker’s approach to modern luxury.

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“Currently, our cars are not used for daily driving purposes,” Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös told journalists at the debut of the 2018 Phantom in Switzerland. “When people drive our car, it’s for special occasions.

“All of our clients have chauffeurs,” he went on. “They have garages like we have wardrobes, for every occasion the right car.”

According to Müller-Ötvös, self-driving technology simply isn’t among the features today's Rolls-Royce buyers request. And while the executive realizes that trend will someday change, Rolls-Royce is taking its time in pursuing any kind of autonomous feature. “There’s no decision yet on when it will come, in which car we’ll start, how do we do it, and so on,” he said.

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But Müller-Ötvös knows for certain that the current self-driving technology doesn’t meet his stringent criteria for inclusion in a Rolls-Royce. He won’t approve of an autonomous feature until it’s perfect. “At least something where it’s what I’d call effortless,” he said. “Not where I always have to keep my finger on the steering wheel. Then it starts to become no longer relaxed.”

Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications for Rolls Royce, agrees. “This super-wealthy crowd, they’re not really after gimmicks,” he said. “They say to us, ‘it’s great technology, autonomy would be fantastic, but bring it to Rolls-Royce when it’s perfect.’”

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Designer Taylor feels that wealthy customers won’t want to abandon the human interaction of a real-life chauffeur. “I don’t believe society is going to become so virtual, so artificial, so robotic, that the human being itself is no longer required,” he told me in Switzerland. “Rolls-Royce should always have that human touch.”

But what would a self-driving Rolls-Royce look like? Taylor envisions a vehicle with the exclusivity of a luxurious horse-drawn carriage. “Then you’ve just got this room,” he said. “That’s kind of what you had: The horses at the front, nobody else in the car with you driving. In the old days of the carriage you had ultimate privacy, ultimate autonomy.”

Another current trend among luxury automakers is the push toward advanced hybrid drivetrains. Here again, Rolls-Royce is happy to let other brands rush ahead. The automaker has committed to a pivot to electric drivetrains, but it won’t pursue hybrids as a halfway point.

“Full electric, not hybrid or plug-in or electrification or whatever,” Müller-Ötvös said. “We won’t do any interim steps. The whole [electric drivetrain] character—torquey, silent—fits perfectly for Rolls-Royce.”

While these decisions may seem counterintuitive in an ultra-luxury market defined by cutting-edge technology, they represent a key Rolls-Royce philosophy: Timelessness, not trendiness. You feel it when you sit in the new Phantom. With the touch of a button, the infotainment screens disappear behind polished wood; the climate system is controlled by metal knobs labeled red for hot, blue for cold, not touchpads or digital temperature displays.

Besides, if you can consider a $450,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom, you can surely afford to pay someone to drive you around.

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