Is New Technology Creating Bad Drivers?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I got into writing about cars because I enjoy driving — which is why I sometimes find myself less and less interested in new cars.

As our roads have congealed into mobile parking lots where it doesn’t matter whether you’re driving a ’78 Chevette or brand-new Corvette; as the automakers fall over each other in their frantic scramble to idiot-proof their products against an ever-less-competent driving public; as traffic laws become more and more over the top, the joy of new cars — even very powerful ones — wanes.

What, after all, is the point of owning a 500 horsepower Ford GT or Corvette Z06 in a world where using even half of that capability (if you can find a place to do so) risks a felony? (Driving faster than 80 mph in many states can subject you to immediate curbside arrest and a few days in the clink — if the judge doesn’t like your looks.)

And that’s just the law. Other forces are also hard at work to suck the joy out of the driving experience.

For example, most new performance cars have some kind of “dynamic” or “active” electronic controller that will only permit so much hooliganism. Spinning the tires is either not allowed at all — or severely limited — by the electronics. There indeed may be an “off” button, but these system sometimes don’t shut themselves all the way off.

The transistorized nanny is a suffocating omnipresence that makes driving even a very high-powered car far less engaging than driving a non-neutered car of far less potential capability. Having 100 percent control of a “50 percent car” is better, in my mind, than having 50 percent control of a 100 percent car.

The automakers are systematically working to take the driver out of the equation; it may not be deliberate — and is probably more due to the convergence of piranha lawyers on the one hand and mewling mobs of “safety” advocates on the other. Still, the end result is the same: New cars are increasingly defined by the presence of “perpetual training wheels” that not only presume incompetence — but arguably encourage more of it.

For instance, consider the electronic parking system Lexus now offers on its top-of-the-line LS-series luxury sedan. Using sensors, an electronic brain and various actuators, the thing is capable of sizing up a potential parking space, determining how the wheels should be cocked, and basically driving itself into the spot. It’s fascinating stuff — from a technical standpoint. But it must be asked: If a person is lacking the skills to safely and efficiently guide his car into a parking spot without help from a computerized wet nurse, perhaps this person needs a few remedial hours of “behind the wheel” training, eh?

And what do we make of “lane departure” warning systems that beep at you if the car begins to wander over the double yellow line? Is it asking too much to ask that drivers actually pay attention to what the car is doing? Didn’t that used to be part of the job description?

The nut of it is that these “advances” result in drivers who are detached from the act of driving; “drivers” who are more and more like passengers — regardless of seating position. It’s not too hard to imagine a future car of five years hence that will handle the entire job, curb to curb. We can then read our paper, or check our e-mail (and stuff our increasingly obese selves) with abandon.

But it’s a pretty bleak thing to contemplate for those who can recall a better time, when driving well was a skill to be proud of and which took some time to acquire. When cars were more elemental and yes, even a little bit scary — and demanded our full time and attention. Learn to master something like an old F100 pick-up with three on the tree (and no hydraulic assist for the clutch) and you came away from it with a sense of accomplishment. Generally speaking, we’re competent to drive virtually anything on wheels in a way that today’s kids, who grew up with “modern” cars, can’t begin to appreciate.

It’s a shame for them — because they’re missing out on some great experiences. And it bodes ill for the future — because the skill level of the typical driver is sure to get worse, not better. That will require more built-in idiot-proofing technology — and more “for our own good” dumbed-down traffic laws. With advances in technology — such as photo radar and GPS tracking, it may soon be impossible to exceed the speed limit without immediate repercussions — if it’s even possible to “speed” at all.

I’m glad I got my licks in before things got ugly….


Image Credit: Erik Charlton

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