Road Trip…or Moon Shot?

Eric Peters

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

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.

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?

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

with permission from

17, 2011

Eric Peters
[send him mail] is an automotive
columnist and author of
Atrocities and Road Hogs
(2011). Visit his

© 2011 Eric Peters

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