We’ve come a long way from the seat-belt-interlock system of 1974. That system required every occupied seat to have the belt fastened before a car would start, and as you can guess this short-lived example of safety technology was an overbearing intrusion consumers didn’t like. As a former 1974 Pontiac Firebird owner I can confirm how annoying this particular “safety enhancement” was every time I had to move the car a short distance on the driveway or in a parking lot. Forty years later the level of automotive technology inhabiting today’s cars is far more sophisticated, with no such annoyances to be found, right? Right?Sadly, no. Four decades of quantum leaps in automotive technology have not always been accompanied by similar leaps in wisdom regarding the use of said technology. In fact, today’s cars pay testament to Scotty’s famous quote in Star Trek III: “The more they overthink the plumbing the easier it is to stop up the drain.”
Don’t get me wrong, technology has put the overall performance and safety level of modern cars in a place few would have believed in 1974. It’s also introduced plenty of 21st Century versions of the seat-belt-interlock system, with all their associated annoyances. Here are my Top 10 New Car Technology Blunders for 2014.
1. Fake Exhaust Noise: Modern carmakers work hard to create the right exhaust note. Some brands have been doing it for decades, but today every performance car sounds amazing…including the BMWs that use speakers instead of explosions to power their exhaust roar. They do this because modern cabin insulation effectively blocks engine noise and/or because the vehicle in question (in this case the 3-cylinder i8) doesn’t have an engine capable of producing a powerful exhaust note. Routing an engine’s actual exhaust note through different baffles is an alternative many automakers use to solve the problem, which is fine. But creating exhaust noise from scratch and enhancing it with the car’s audio system is technology at its worst.
2. Idiotic Idiot Lights: A friend of mine recently took his 2013 Ford Escape on a road trip. It performed flawlessly on the 2000-mile drive from Denver to Florida, but as he rolled into his destination every warning light on the dashboard — ABS, Traction Control, Airbag — lit up. A message stating “hill climb assist not available” also came up. After thinking the drivetrain might have fallen out he took the car to a local Ford dealer. The problem? A faulty airbag wiring harness. Did that issue really require half-a-dozen warning lights? Our cars are supposed to be smarter than ever, with diagnostic ports that tell mechanics exactly what’s wrong. Why can’t they tell us, too, with a simple (and accurate) message in the display screen?
3. Virtual Buttons for Critical Functions: Today’s ubiquitous touchscreen displays let automakers clean up the dashboard control interface. With so many features that didn’t exist 20 years ago (stability control, sport modes, dual-zone climate control, hands-free phone operation, navigation, etc.) a touchscreen can literally replace dozens of hard buttons that would otherwise clutter the cabin. That’s fine, but when Tesla’s Model S makes basic functions, like the rear hatch release and charge port access, dependent on these digital buttons it sets up a potential nightmare if (when?) the display screen fails. Note to automakers: virtual buttons are cool, but dedicated hard buttons should be used for critical functions.
4. Electric-Powered Doors: Like touchscreen buttons, automakers have begun using electronic relays to replace the mechanical door release in cars like the Chevrolet Corvette. As with most high-tech features, this system usually works fine, popping the door open at the touch of a button. But — what happens when the battery dies and the car loses all electrical power? Thankfully, automakers are required to offer mechanical alternatives for these occasions, though the process can be far more involved and far less intuitive than pushing a button. Imagine you’re in an accident that damages the electrical system while also starting a fire. Recalling the mechanical door release process might not be top of mind at that moment.
5. Misplaced Keyless Start: The idea of not having to twist a key, or even touch a key, when starting or shutting off your car sounds great. Now imagine you’ve driven to the airport with your significant other, who proceeds to get out of the car and onto a plane bound for the other side of the globe. Only after you’re halfway home do you realize the car key is in your partner’s pocket. These systems are supposed to have sensors that warn you when the key isn’t in the cabin. And more than a decade after this technology was introduced the majority of cars I test still make the airport scenario plausible. Automakers need to make these systems fool-proof, which means accurate sensors that immediately identify when the key isn’t present.
6. Idle Stop — and Shimmy: Hybrid vehicles have featured idle-stop technology for years to save fuel and reduce emissions when stationary. Soon every car will follow as automakers work to meet rising EPA standards. While the theory makes perfect sense the reality can be fatiguing. Starting most cars causes a lot of noise and vibration. Doing it 30 times during a relatively short trip will make your commute feel twice as long. I was in a diesel Mercedes-Benz E-Class in England last month, and it felt like a paint mixer every time the engine fired up, which was several times a minute in city driving. Automakers must reduce the noise and vibration associated with starting a car if they expect this technology to be widely embraced.
7. No More Manuals: Today’s automatics are now absolutely, positively, and without a doubt better than a traditional stick shift, which is why you can no longer get a modern Ferrari or Porsche GT3 with three pedals. Of course, a Toyota Camry is a more cost-efficient way to move people around compared to any sports car, so let’s just stop making Ferraris and Porsches altogether, right? Look, I’m a huge fan of modern, dual-clutch transmissions. I have no desire to deal with a third pedal as a Southern California resident. And I still think it’s criminal for an increasing number of modern exotic sports cars to not even offer a manual transmission option. And don’t give me the cost argument. When a car’s price crosses six figures there’s adequate profit margin for manual transmission R&D, even if only a sliver of buyers ever chooses it. For shame guy.
8. Restricted Access to Features: Distracted driving is a serious issue car companies must address. They also need to leverage existing technology in obvious, no-brainer ways to maximize feature access when it’s safe. Yes, as a driver I shouldn’t have full access to navigation and phone features when the car is moving. But my passenger should. Is it really that difficult to use the airbag and seatbelt sensors in every modern vehicle to allow my wife to program a street address while I’m driving? Forcing me to pull over and stop in this circumstance might present its own set of dangers, depending on my location. At the very least it’s hugely frustrating to have a passenger ready and willing to safely use these systems when the car won’t let them.
9. Dumb Display Screens: Back-up cameras are common today, and by 2018 they will be required by law on every vehicle sold in the U.S. This is a good example of technology making cars safer, particularly for young children who are often the victims of low-speed accidents when a car backs up. The problem is the implementation of the camera’s view, which takes over the central display whenever a car is put in reverse — at the exclusion of all other functions. Need to turn the blasting heater fan off? Is someone calling and you want to answer? If your car has a back-up camera and is in reverse you can’t do either, or anything else controlled through the screen. These displays need to get smarter about combining functions when it makes sense.
10. Reduced Car Control: Have you ever turned the steering wheel rapidly to avoid a collision? How about squeezing between two cars in an adjacent lane to keep from hitting a disabled vehicle or clueless pedestrian suddenly blocking your lane? Sometimes we’re forced into less-than-ideal maneuvers to avoid a more destructive and deadly situation, right? Lesser of two evils and all that. Well, that option is slowly evaporating. For the past 10 years I’ve watched stability control systems exert greater influence over driver input in the name of “safety.” The issue? Sometimes the system doesn’t recognize a threat that’s obvious to a human driver. Turning the wheel so quickly that I risk a moderate skid or colliding with a parked car is acceptable when I’m doing it to avoid a kid chasing a ball. But what happens when the computer disagrees and overrides my ability to control the vehicle.