Trip to Mars – Or The Mall?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

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.


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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