I thought for a moment that instead of writing about a specific car this time around, that I would write about what my inner IT guy is wrapping his head around. The onslaught of electronic aids (no, not a poorly named computer virus but the piles of computers that are supposed to be helping to keep us out of trouble).
So much of this stuff is becoming standard fare and making it’s way into mainstream cars, or, at the mercy of our safety obsessed government; required. Since I don’t hate all of it, this won’t just be a long tirade about how the art of driving has been diluted or that we’re just that much closer to being passengers in our own cars. Also, since I’ve never driven a 458 or indeed any car with traction control settings outside of “off” and “on” I’ll also just stick with the stuff that I do have experience with and have used on a first hand basis with a few years of hocking Mazda’s under my belt.
Without further ado, here goes (fair warning - boring reading a very little information ahead):
Blind Spot Monitoring: The idea here is that the car will tell you whether or not it’s safe to change lanes. Sounds nice - and if you have a neck collar on or drive a box van (or a Fiat 500 with the top back), it is. But, outside of that, what’s the matter with turning and looking? I guess we can blame diminishing C and D pillars for that one.
The Mazda system does come along with a cross-traffic alert system that will let you know as you are backing out of a parking spot, if a car (or a person for that matter) is coming from either side - which can come in handy.
Adaptive Headlights: Mazda’s system only comes on high-end cars with Xenon (or now LED) headlights and they move up to 15 degrees with along with the steering wheel. On a dark winding road (such as we have here in VT) they can be quite nice in illuminating the roadside around corners. In town they aren’t really a whole lot of help and a rally driver might find them a little slow to respond. Overall, a neat little toy that no one knew they needed. Thank you Tucker.
Radar Cruise Control: Spending 2/3 of my 88mi daily drive on the interstate, cruise control is one of my best friends and everyone with theirs set lower than mine are the bane of my existence. Radar cruise control, on the other hand, is little like finding out your best friend is a billionaire and he wants to split his fortune with you just because you are an awesome guy.
Rain-Sensing Wipers: This summer especially, since it’s rained more days than it hasn’t, rain sensing wipers are quite handy....when they work. The system in Mazda’s that I’ve driven along with the system in my Volvo, are pretty good. They adjust up and down pretty reliably (give or take a handful of incidents here and there with the Volvo system) and I love being able to just put it in auto and let it figure it out. My first experience with this type of system though was in my Saab 9-3 Aero. And that one nearly turned me off from them entirely. It seemed like no matter what the sensitivity setting is, it would wipe about three times as you would expect it to and then, for no apparent reason, decide that all of the water in the world was falling at once and set the wipers to Usain Bolt speed until you decided to turn them off and back on again - at which point you got three swipes and then, boom - torrential downpour speed until you reset it - and it’s three swipes and bam, let’s see how fast we can wipe, reset, and....well, you get the idea. Chose your system wisely.
High-Beam Control: Haven’t tried it. I’ve been told that it works great. It turns off the high-beams when you are approaching other cars, small towns, road signs, porch lights, the reflection in a cats eye, etc.
Lane-Departure Warning: FFFFFFUUUUUUUU. I know I’m closing in on the white line in this corner, it’s called hitting the apex. Leave me alone. Thank you also for letting me know when I’m getting close to the yellow line as I exit the corner. Maybe we should modify this system a little bit: Call it Apex Catching system. You get a cheer from the crowd when you kiss the white line just at the right point and then come onto the power slowly and cheering again just as you reach the outside edge of your lane at the end of the corner. And then it’ll beep like an episode of Hell’s Kitchen if you get it wrong or just drive through the corner in the middle of the lane.
Smart City Braking: Since this system is meant to lessen an impending impact and not necessarily prevent it and our own CX-5 is not equipped with it, I have not taken enough bravery pills to test it. I’m guessing it works fine if you are barrelling down on an object larger than a small bush but may not help if that trailer hitch is sticking out to far (I’m reminded of an episode of top gear...).
Forward Obstruction Warning: It’s a device that says “Hey asshole, look up from your phone long enough to prepare for the upcoming crash. Given some of the things I’ve seen on the road, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Smart-Key Systems: I’m lazy and I like not having to take the key out of my pocket! Not to mention it’s of benefit as a dealership employee. I can collect all the keys into my pocket(s) or a small box and just walk up to each car and start it without having to fumble through all the keys to get the right one or walking back and forth a million times taking the keys out one at a time.
Backup Camera: Fact: cars are getting harder to see out the back of. This is making the backup camera (and the blind-spot monitor as well) more and more prevalent. While I still tend to back up with my mirrors and good old fashioned looking backwards - it is good for telling you exactly where the back of the car is when you are getting closer to shorter items or just how much of your kids toys are laying behind the car before you set off.
Active Grill Shutters: This just seems like something that will get stuffed with snow the first storm, break, and then you can forget about it for the rest of the cars life.
Head-up Display: These are kind of neat. They are like a pared down instrument cluster that gives you only the information you really need to know at any given time. What’s your speed, where you next turn is and in the case of newer Saab 9-5’s, what gear you are in (when in manual mode)
Electronic Parking Brake: Sure, a parking brake is nice for holding my car in place when I’m sitting somewhere in neutral or parked on a hill. But, I can’t do handbrake turns with it (fortunately, I am already married and therefore don’t have to use this method of seduction). And, perhaps more importantly, if the car I’m in suffers from a sudden loss of brakes - I have lost my most effective tool in coming to a stop safely without having use the words “run into” or “splashed” or “tree” to describe the incident.
Infotainment Systems: It’s nice to be able to tell my car to change stations or play Jimmy Eat World, or to call a random person in my phonebook because it didn’t understand what I said. But, how much do we really need? Play my shitty music, integrate my google maps and call the person who’s name I say - that would be enough for me.
Speaking of Navigation - I like to explore. I don’t really need Nav to tell me how to get somewhere the quickest way, blah blah blah - if I’m going somewhere, I’ve already done that on google maps sitting in front of my computer sans pants. What I really want to be able to do is create a route on google and then be able to tell my car, here’s where I want to go - keep my posted on my progress.
Automatic Climate Control: Set it and forget it, how bad can that be??
Then there’s all the shit that’s out there that Mazda doesn’t have (yet). Cars that park themselves, IR cameras, sensors that tell you if the parking spot is big enough, the list goes on and on. I haven’t tried or come across anyone that has these things on their car, so, I can’t comment on whether or not I like it.
With a couple exceptions I do like most of the technology, but, as long as I have my rain-sensing wipers, I’m not sitting here thinking “boy, I really need a car with XX on it”. Although, I am capable of observing the world above and around my phone.
While a handful of these systems make life easier behind the wheel, most of it is born out of the public’s general ambivalence toward driving and the ever rising distractions to keep our eyes off the road. It’s all meant to improve safety and reduce accidents. But, if we actually trained our drivers and more than 1% of the population took driving seriously and learned to focus on the world around them, we could easily reduce accidents, improve driving for everyone, and then, without the need for all this nannying, reduce costs and therefore prices of new cars. This would also reduce weight, require less space and improve fuel economy.
But, since none of that is going to happen, cars will continue to get fatter, heavier, thirstier and more expensive as the government mandates more and more of these things. Then poor Steve Lehto is going to be stuck defending people who’s main argument is “the blind-spot monitor never told me that bicycle was there!”
Happy 4th of July everyone!