Road Trip … Or Moon Shot?

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You don’t have to be a cranky old fart to find yourself increasingly at odds with the multiplexed interfaces, mouse inputs and menus, touch screen displays and tyrannical computer “aids” that are becoming commonplace features on modern cars – and which sometimes do their best to back seat drive you into vein-popping fury.

It often begins as soon as you settle into your seat. Dare to drive away without immediately buckling-up for safety like a good little boy or girl, and the “Danger! Danger! Will Robinson!” sound effects commence. Some of the “Belt Minder” chimes on new cars shriek at a pitch apparently calculated to enrage any normal human within 60 seconds. Picture the old Incredible Hulk TV series; some redneck thug has just cold-cocked Bruce Banner… an easygoing guy, so long as you don’t make him angry. The end result in both cases is the same: The blood boils, the fury builds to explosive levels – and before you realize what’s happening, you’re Lou Ferrigno in green body paint hurling a bank of computers across the room. Only it’s that buzzer in the dash you want to club to death.

Hulk smash!

I feel the same way about having to fight a Traction Control computer that doesn’t want to let me do a burnout or slide through a corner under my control. Some of these systems have “off” switches – but many can’t be completely disabled. At least, not without going through an elaborate, multi-step process. They cut power, or “selectively apply the brakes” (or both) to make sure you don’t have too much fun.

Is it juvenile to want to lay a bit of rubber in a performance car? Sure – but isn’t that why people buy high-performance cars? If not, why bother? No one needs a three or four hundred horsepower engine to get efficiently from A to B.

But I absolutely understand wanting one. And when you pay for one, you ought to be able to use it.

Right?

Luxury cars are probably the worst offenders when it comes to needless complexity. And it’s because there’s really not much difference anymore between a well-optioned $26,000 car and a $45,000 “luxury” model. The build quality of even $15,000 cars today is generally superior to that of top-of-the-line models of 30 years ago – and things like powerful engines, climate control air conditioning, electric sunroofs, power windows and locks, keyless entry, GPS, leather trim and aluminum alloy wheels are commonplace. It’s hard to find a car at the $28-30K level that hasn’t got all these things – and much more besides. So how to justify the 50-75 percent jump in price to the so-called “premium” automobile? Easy. Dump in as much fancy technology as you can gin up.

Result? Luxury cars are usually just more of a hassle to operate.

Electric tilt/telescoping wheels take longer to move into position than manually-adjustable versions.Easy to use knobs to turn the radio on and off, change stations – and adjust the air temperature/fan speed, etc. – have been replaced by menus that you are forced to scroll through via a mouse input.

Higher-end cars also tend to come fitted with the kind of superfluous idiocy that makes a powerful argument for taxing the rich back into sanity. For example, Mercedes has incorporated little whirring electric motors and actuators into the doors of their big S-Class sedans so that their dainty owners don’t have to shut them manually. Instead, they just push them sort of closed and the electro-gizmos do the rest. Same with the trunk – which was apparently designed for people with the upper body strength of Monty “I’m giving you the beating of your life!” Burns.

Look, anyone too feeble to open or close the trunk himself – or who needs electric assist to fully close the door – is too gimpy to be permitted behind the wheel.

Luxury cars are also the on the leading edge of automotive idiot-proofing. Many now offer “intelligent” cruise control that turns drivers into  addled idiots by absolving them of responsibility for paying attention to the road and changing traffic conditions. The computer – using radar or laser transmitters built into the car’s bumper – can tell if the traffic up ahead is slowing down or speeding up and can automatically adjust the car’s speed to maintain the proper following distance, without the “driver” (so-called) needing to take any other action but continue to yak on his cell phone and gape vacuously into space.

The latest things are even worse,  including “lane departure” warning systems that operate on the same principle, using sensors and computers to keep the car from wandering out of its proper slot due to an inattentive or asleep-at-the-switch “driver.”

Why not just take the bus?

There’s an argument – not too Luddite, just sensible – to be made for backing away from a lot of this stuff. Like cell phones, much of the junk being added to cars is sold as a convenience when in reality it’s simply adding to the stress (and expense) of day-to-day living. I think we could use more style, more fun – more soul — and less in the way of fussbudget gadgets and electronic nannying to cocoon us from our own stupidity.

What do you think?

 

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Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia.

28 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoy your website and opinions Eric!
    I personally would like to see all vehicles equipped with laser/radar automatic braking, even though this would interfere with my aggressive defensive driving skills.

    What is the current cost per vehicle to install this feature?

    I have not heard much about this in the automotive press, but this is a technology solution to the mindless mobile phone bans and distracted driving propaganda. The children in the back seat and the wife in the front seat is a bigger distraction most days. And what about the radio and MP3 player for distractions.

    Even though the new cars are expensive, they are much safer then the cars I grew up driving.

    • Hi Kevin,

      I’ve got two issues with this:

      One, it encourages inattentive driving. If a driver is paying attention and maintaining a safe following distance, there is little, if any, justification for laser/radar automated braking system. They simply do an “end run” around bad driving. I’d rather people learn to drive – and be held accountable for bad driving.

      Two, this is elaborate (and hence, expensive) technology. Not only in terms of the initial cost, but also in terms of down-the-road repair costs. It’s one more (expensive) thing to go wrong.

      I agree (because it’s not debatable!) that modern cars are, in general, safer than the cars of the past. But they’ve also become much more expensive to buy, and much harder for the average person to maintain (which means, more expensive to maintain).

      I suppose where you stand on this depends on your perspective. Some are ok with more expensive cars they can’t fix themselves – in return for improved safety, including technologies that to a great extent absolve them from the need to develop good driving skills.

      I’m of a different mind. I don’t like debt – hence, I don’t like expensive Wurlitzer cars. I also like being self-sufficient, so I like a car I can maintain mostly if not entirely myself. And most of all, I pride myself on being a competent driver and so really don’t like cars that assume I’m inept and try to turn me into a passenger who just happens to be sitting in the left front seat.

      • I’m with you Eric. I don’t need the car driving for me (Will Smith’s character in I Robot comes to mind). On more than one occasion wits, reflexes and direct driver input have kept me out of trouble, not put me in it. One night I was headed West out of Ft. Walton Beach, FL on Hwy. 98. An elderly tourist in a Lincoln Town Car pulled out of a hotel parking lot and turned East right (the wrong way) into my lane. I was staring right into his headlights! I barely managed to hit the shoulder and almost swapped paint with him (we were so close I could see the look of terror on his face). I nailed it, kicked up some sand and was back on the road without getting stuck. I got one heck of an adrenalin rush to boot. If I’d had some kind of radar / lidar braking device overriding me it would have slowed me down just enough for that Mercury Comet to head-on the Town Car at about 50 instead a little off-roading at 55.

        As far as basic transportation goes, what if you could buy a 1950’s Jeep CJ-2 or CJ-3 with modern metallurgy, shocks and fuel injection? No air bags, power windows or any of that crap. How about an old military Dodge Power Wagon, same Spartan trim, but modern drive train and EFI? I’ll bet a lot of folks would go for an updated 1969 Toyota Corrolla without all the modern bells and whistles. I can’t remember what kind of mileage I got with mine (it was a 1.2L), but I went all over the place with it as a teenager and gas money was the least of my worries. I can only imagine what kind of mileage that 3K engine would get with fuel injection and a five speed. Talk about user serviceable; I actually put a head gasket on that car on the side of road.

        It really would be great if government would get out of the way and let the free market decide what kind of cars we can have. At least I can dream…..

  2. I think you have established the definitive connection between the feeble luxury car driver and the car designer/legislator. Anyone that has the sense of pride of being able to drive something as beautiful and glorious as a Mustang doesn’t have the desire to be hemmed in by the idiot-proof devices that shackle in the panty-waists stuck in those Lincoln boats.

  3. Dude….CHECK ENGINE LIGHTS and their sensors that come on and stay on when there is absolutely nothing wrong with the engine. Leaving them on would be fine except in SOME draconian states, having the light lit will cause you to fail emissions testing. That is MY pet peeve. I agree with your statement on trucks. I have an 04 Ford (not bad, but way more electronic junk than I care for) and as soon as it is history, I will be going back in history for my next truck.

    • Yeah!

      Here in VA, you fail the state emissions test if the check engine light is either not working or stays on. The tech checks to see that it comes on when the car is first started, then goes out after it’s started.

      Luckily, emissions tests are not yet statewide; not all counties (including mine) has them. I’ve been driving my ’98 pick-up with the stupid light on for the past six years….

    • The loving government regulators decided that “check engine” would scare people into taking their car in. It was their belief that if there was a display that gave an indication of what was wrong people would not bring their cars in for minor things.

  4. Traction control caused me an accident, and it was (partially) disabled. I was barely moving around a corner but it was wet, and there was mud… And sand. So lovingly placed on the otherwise perfectly fine as it was dirt shoulder by my loving government road maintenance crew, only to have washed it’s way across the entire road.

    In any case, I started sliding. No big deal, I thought, just tap the gas get ‘er in line, and on my way, as I’ve done countless times in the 92 Benz. In fact, said I, it should be easier now that my 02 Audi TT has all wheel drive and whatnot. Safety has come a long way! Well, the joke was on me. The car cut response from the throttle-by-wire gas pedal, the engine received no juice, and the best I could do is turn the car so only the bumper hit the side of the hill.

    • Don’t worry Fritz, it won’t be much longer before cars become totally drive by wire. Then the superior intellect of the car’s processor will take over any time there’s a problem and just drive for you (kind of like the cars in I Robot). At that point, you can sit back, relax and watch helplessly while the car wrecks itself. 😉

  5. My 1962 Land Rover has none of those things. It needs to be driven all the time, and the lack of crumple zones, abs, traction control and all the other nonsense, mean that if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on all around you, the rigid, non-collapsible steering column will spear you through the heart.
    There’s no radio. Don’t be silly. There are all those mechanical things thrashing about, and no interior trim, so you’d barely hear it anyway.

    And you know what? I love it.

      • I confess to having a later vehicle too. At 17 years old, it’s almost new. It has one electric window winder. The driver’s one, though, I replaced the motor, but the new motor and the electronic control unit don’t get on very well, so I just open the door, it’s easier than fixing the electronic control unit. Oh. And the remote locking works only when it feels like it, so I use the key.
        Progress. It’s exciting, isn’t it?

        The car I enjoy driving is my ’62 landrover, or my brother’s ’52 Landrover. Slow, noisy, and fun.
        And a workhorse too.

    • I’ve got no problem with them if they’re available for those who want them. What I object to is that so many of them are de facto (or de jure) mandatory as a direct result of law (air bags) or, indirectly, in order to comply with a law or regulation (e.g., bumper-impact standards).

      There is also the issue of idiot-proofing cars; or rather, trying to idiot-proof them. I say trying because in fact idiot-proofing technology just leads to more idiots: People who are passive, unskilled and inattentive – because they’ve been trained to expect technology to do everything for them. For example, stability/traction control. Instead of learning how to sense a car’s threshold of grip and keep it under control when it slides or skids, people are now reliant on ESP to save their bacon.

      It’s a sad irony that as cars have become ever more capable, the typical driver has become ever less so!

  6. Some tech that is nice is ability to plug in and play USB memory stick with your music on it. All I want after that is a super overdrive tranny that runs 2000 rpm at 80 mph, so I can get great mpg out of a non-wimpy car.

  7. “The latest things are even worse, including “lane departure” warning systems that operate on the same principle, using sensors and computers to keep the car from wandering out of its proper slot due to an inattentive or asleep-at-the-switch “driver”.

    Oh, get OUT! You’re making this up!

    It’s hard to say which is more offensive, the feature or the latest PC fracturing of the language, to wit, “lane departure”.

    Cop: You know why I pulled you over?

    Driver: No?

    Cop: You were observed committing reckless lane departure.

    Driver: I was what?

    You have rid me — thank you — of the desire ever to own one of these extravagantly silly machines. Due to a lifetime of living la vida pobre, my present car, my beautiful and elegant Queen, is the first car I ever owned with windows that wind up and down electrically. I thought when I bought it and still think that’s the cat’s ass, bells and whistles-wise.

    I doan need no stinkin’ laser on my ride, Gringo!

    • Same here.

      I’ve thought about what I’ll do when my “new” trucks (1998 and 2002) expire. They are simple things, or as simple as a modern car can be. Manual transmission, roll-up windows. Not even cruise control. The ’02 has intermittent wipers. Ok, I like that feature. But this other flapdoodle? I don’t like it, I don’t feel the need and I certainly don’t want to pay for it.

      So, I will either scour the country for a low-miles “vintage” ’98-2004 (last year) Frontier or I will buy a real vintage truck, something like a late 1970s or early-mid 1970s F-100, and drive that. No air bags. No ABS. No freakin’ computer!

  8. Oh Dear God.

    All of this useless crap will break as the car gets older, and I might have to hire some geek to keep the computer stuff functioning. Surely this needless complexity will HAVE to function before the engine will start. The Nanny State and Heimat Gestapo items will need to get Big Sis’s OK before I go anywhere.

    Back in the 70s the seatbelt buzzer/ interlock could be disabled, no one the wiser. No longer. The KISS principle has a lot of merit.
    The 8000 dollar Nissan sounds good to me. At that rate, a Maxima should cost maybe 15,000 dollars. It could have a 190 HP engine like they did 15 years ago. Stick shift. DYI stereo option P/S P/B standard. A/C optional. Air bags optionalIt would be a functional, basic nice car. Sort of like a 1960s Chevy Bel Aire. People could actually afford to pay it off in three years.

    Due to the competitive nature of the business, and spoiled consumers, no one would buy the car. A friend of mine bought a new Toyota Camry from a dealer in the mid 1990s. It sat on the dealer lot for over a year. It had not sold because it had window cranks, stick shift, and a 4 cylinder engine. My friend wanted a basic car. He received a very substantial discount.

  9. I’d have no problem with the level of technology in modern automobiles, if two things could be guaranteed:

    1. I could purchase a genuine econonmy car that had little more than four tires, a motor and a steering wheel; and
    2. The American driver wasn’t driven to distraction, so to speak, by the plethora of dials and menus and glovebox chillers and Blueteeth in their new car.

    For #1, the Feds won’t allow such an “unsafe” car to be manufactured or imported. Where #2 is concerned, it’s impossible. Just impossible.

    • Agree!

      Have you seen the base Nissan Versa 1.6?

      MSRP is $9999 – add AC and it’s around $11k. Great little car and it would be even greater if they could “delete option” the air bags and get the MSRP down to about $8,000.

      • Yes. I discovered the Versa via this site, actually. It’s certainly a contender in my quest for basic transportation.
        I’m 6’3″, like you. Due to the extreme rake of the windscreens on so many modern coupes/sedans (in any class), it’s difficult for me to be comfortable. E.g., to date I can’t sit up straight in ANY vehicle equipped with a sunroof. So, compromises must be made. I trend toward the lowest trim level in an auto, because they usually don’t have sunroofs or leather (I’m not keen on the latter).

  10. We’re moving towards self controlled cars just like in “I Robot”. Humanity will be just passengers. Some of this, in concept, I can support. Machines will be able to navigate cars with closer tolerances and max the available road space in dense vehicle areas while running the cars as fast as they can on the roads given the weather conditions.

    All that said, when I’m on the open (little traffic) and I want to open the car up and enjoy the driving experience, I don’t want some “nanny voice” chiming in that I’m exceeding the speed limit or following too close, etc. God forbid to have them auto report my “criminal” activity to the local police or my insurance agent.

    I had a convo with the sales guy who sold me the last car and i asked him if the “on star like thing” that came with the car could have the gps device turned off. He had no clue what I was asking. 100% of any of these luxury features should be able to be turned off or on by the user. I’m not a big fan of many of them only because they add complexity to the car. I actually had someone misdial a phone number and randomly get my car’s phone. The car comes prewired/programmed with a phone and even a number. To call out you have to have paid for the service, but folks can call you if they happen to misdial. The dealer said that there were too few of these incidents for the engineers to find the cause. We really need this complexity in a car?

    As to the whole “Mercedes door closure thing”. I’d had that, but honestly, when I got my last car, the doors were actually rather difficult to open for my wife. She’s small and it was a bit harder to open the door than on her car, especially if I was on a slope and she was opening the door.

  11. Well said.

    I would prefer a simpler car that is inexpensive to operate.

    Many of the electronic gizmos and complex systems are not needed, unless they (auto manufacturers) want to be able to (attempt) justify the high cost they charge for their product.

    Part of this may be so they can “hide” the cost of mandated equipment in the cost of the car.

    The only high tech option that I really like is blue tooth integration. This enables me to talk in the car without holding my phone.

    The simpler the car, the less there is to go wrong or break.

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