There's too much tech in cars
A third of motorists have no idea what all the technology in their modern car actually does
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
Do you know what these acronyms mean: ADAS, ADB, AFS, ANC, AVM, BSM, CBA, CBC, DCT, DRL, EBA, FCM, IMT, IPAS, LKAS, MMI, PDC, ECS and of course that old favourite ASS?
Even if you were able to decipher some or all of these, would you know what they actually related to? For example, what is an ‘Intelligent Manual Transmission’ (IMT)? Is it a smart shifter that knows when to switch ratios – in other words, an automatic? Or is it a throttle pedal that thinks it’s a racing driver and blips the revs on every down-change?
It’s the latter actually. And as for ASS… well, I’ll get around to that.
A press release put out by the British Motor Show (it's on at Farnborough International Expo Centre in August) recently revealed that 35% of car owners didn’t understand the technological features in their cars. 20% admitted they used less than half the tech on board.
Technology in your vehicle has proliferated in the last decade giving us useful stuff like collision avoidance systems, 'around view' 360 degrees cameras (it's like you're a bird lining up the car for a poop drop), and motors that can park themselves.
Autonomous parking absolutely freaks me out. The car tends to automatically steer much closer to obstacles and other vehicles as it manoeuvres into a slot than a human, such as myself, would. Sitting behind the wheel with your profusely sweating hands not touching the steering, that results in quite a buttock clenching workout. However there is no doubt the systems are jaw-droppingly clever... or are they?
My inaugural moment of experiencing autonomous parking in a 2017 Mercedes E200 (see video below), revealed that once it had detected a spot (not always on the first attempt) and seemingly parked within, it then decided it didn't much like the way it had done so, and proceeded to correct itself. If it's so darn smart - why didn't it get it right the first time?! Is it pretending to be human? What sly robotic conniving IS this?
Certainly some drivers would appreciate a car that parks itself – especially if the plethora of YouTube parking fail videos are anything to go by – however, the action of parking a car is like any other exercise: the more you do it, the better you get at it. If you stop doing it and fall completely out of practice, and the autonomous system has a fault, then what? Will you ask a random stranger to park it for you, and watch forlornly as he promptly drives off in the car, leaving you too embarrassed to even report the theft to the police?
But magical parking abilities are not, to me, the most mystifying of systems (especially as I don't use them). Automatic braking systems have frequently given me heart attacks. I remember reverse parking a new Cadillac once and it suddenly bolted to a stop. Convinced I had inadvertently smacked into something that even the camera was not picking up, I was formulating excuses in my head, to give to the press office, about why the rear of their car had been redesigned as I jumped out to survey the damage.
There was none. Not a scratch. Nor was there any perceivable obstacle, that I could comprehend, which would justifiably fire the auto-braking. Perhaps a cat had run past, perhaps it didn't like the look of that pebble that must have been creeping threateningly towards the kerb.
Another time it snapped to a halt whilst turning onto the off-ramp of a busy shopping mall's multi-storey car park. This was mildly terrifying as there was a long line of traffic directly behind me. Fortunately, any contretemps were avoided, but I must have annoyed everyone by again disembarking from the car and surveying my surrounds to assure myself it was merely the onboard computer having an unnecessary short-circuit. My passengers didn't much appreciate the mild whiplash either.
Oh, and then there's Volvo Intellisafe Collision Avoidance Assistance. This is the automotive equivalent of Skynet going live and causing Armageddon. Okay, it's a well-meaning system designed obviously to keep you safe – something of a Volvo forte – but here's the scenario: I'm cruising along a six-lane wide motorway. In my mirror I notice a Nissan start to swerve erratically across several lanes. My human brain correctly surmises that the driver has just realised they need to take the next exit and is making a mad lunge for it.
However since my vehicle is close to the nutter's trajectory, the Volvo's computer brain goes full 'Red alert, shields up, arm torpedoes' mode. The system is actually capable of swerving to avoid a potential collision – I know this now, but did not at that precise moment. Imagine my utter shock, astonishment, and regret at not having my prayer beads to hand, as the XC60 succumbed to being demonically possessed, snatched steering control away and changed lanes of its own accord.
Oh hell no! I almost opened the door and stepped out of the moving car then and there.
Frankly these are safety systems that, if not properly explained and demonstrated to the driver/owner could present a greater danger than they are worth. I swear by seatbelts, ABS and traction/stability control systems. Everything else that came afterwards, on the other hand, has led to confirmation of the old adage that the best safety feature in a car is a foot-long spike mounted in the centre of the steering wheel pointing directly at your face. Think about it.
Obviously not all the new tech is terrifying – there are more fanciful features like gesture control in BMWs where you wildly twirl your finger at the fascia to turn the radio volume up or down (despite physical controls on both the dashboard and steering wheel). You really look like you're an ideal candidate for permanent residency in Arkham Asylum with that one. And how about fragrance diffusers in Peugeots? Although if the Peugeot is a taxi, that might not be a bad idea after all.
One of the things planned for the all-new British Motor Show will be a focus on explaining in-car technology. Please form an orderly queue behind me. Oh and ASS - that stands for Auto Start-Stop.