The Slow Death of Driver Involvement
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When I was a child, the idea of driving a car as personal entertainment was engrained in anyone with a sliver of interest. I had more like a 2×4 of interest than a sliver, and eagerly devoured each new issue of Road and Track and any other car magazine I could get my hands on. A few years later motorcycles attracted my attention, and soon outpaced cars in terms of rabid enthusiasm.
How things have changed! And the future…
The other evening, I accompanied a female friend (and a student of mine – in 1970!) in search of a newer used car. We met at a car dealer, and a couple of things were obvious almost immediately. For one, she had done a lot of research and was really knowledgeable about the cars she was interested in. That really impressed me. Secondly, her criteria for a car purchase were radically different from mine. It gradually dawned on me that her thinking was in line with the majority of car buyers today, where I am now an outlier in the most fragmented of small percentages.
When I am looking for a new or used car, I want the model with the most horsepower, the largest tires and brakes available as options, and relatively few techno or luxury additions.
That is no longer the case for most buyers, methinks.
For the majority of cars sold today, from any manufacturer, the engine is an inline 4 cylinder, probably with a turbocharger. The amount of horsepower can vary wildly, but is almost of no concern to the buyer. It is what it is. Even me. I never asked how much power the engine in the two cars we looked at produced, and in fact I would have to look up the available power in the VW Tiguan I purchased almost two years ago. The only reason I know that my Fiat has 105 horsepower is that I think it is funny.
Patty was interested in a used Hyundai, primarily because Hyundai’s come with an amazing warranty that stays with the car when it is resold. That is important to most people, whereas I, six years ago, purchased a Fiat! To be fair, my Fiat has been completely reliable.
Her other major criteria left me gob smacked. A sunroof? Yes, I agree with that. But… a rear-view camera as a priority? What happened to the concept of turning your head? She also prefers a sedan to a hatchback, which I am not wired to understand, and in that she is out of step with the masses, Small SUVs are all the rage, and she is sort of “meh” on them. At the end of the day, she wants a 30k car and has a 15k budget, so this may take some time.
Today I noticed some ads for new cars in the paper, as from now to December 31st is the best time to purchase a new car. The later you wait the better. Car dealers are awarded for their success by quarter and by year, and December 31st offers both incentives. We purchased both our new Honda CRV in 2004 and new Tiguan in 2016 in the week after Christmas. The Fiat was a summer purchase, but the dealer was eager to get the then new model sales flowing, so it was OK.
I am not about to purchase a new car, but my interest is always churning, even if my finances are at idle. In addition to the “low, low, low prices (!!!),” the new car ads also tout all sorts of technology – most of which I do not want. Rear-view cameras are boasted of, even though they are now a legal requirement, but also self-parking, automatic following adjustments for the cruise control, lane departure warnings, and on and on.
What is happening, I think, is that all new cars are now so mechanically reliable and similar that “farkles” become the only thing left to differentiate. More cup holders. More social media, phone, and music interface capabilities. Not only have we accepted the idea that many drivers are not paying attention and/or inept, but we have begun to reduce the need for any concept of what the car is doing, where it is, or how it can be controlled. Let the computer(s) do it. The driver is ever less relevant.
I noticed this in 2010, when I had the opportunity to drive a Mercedes Benz AMG convertible around Pacific International Raceway at some speed. The car had so many safety-nannies wired into it that it constantly wanted to argue with me. Trail braking into a corner made the car try to correct my “error,” and trying to rotate the car on its axis mid-corner was not allowed. None of these features could be turned off. I wondered at the time if crashing this $100,000 car was even possible.
A brother-in-law gets a new car every few years as a perk of his job. The most recent one will parallel park itself and automatically alter speed when in cruise control to keep a safe distance. He noticed almost immediately that his ability to parallel park was atrophying. Even worse, when driving his other car on the freeway in cruise control he would wait for it to slow down as traffic slowed, and it did not.
Remember the driver’s license test you took? For many teens, the parallel parking section created paranoid fear. And now? I envision a driver’s test in the future that consists of only three diagrams. Correctly circle the gas pedal, shift lever, and steering wheel, and you have passed. When you enter the car, you will tell it where you want to go, and the car will calculate the route, and turn its turn signals on and off.
It is not that we will want autonomous cars. By the time they become widely available, most people will have to have them, as they will have lost whatever driving skills they ever had.
And don’t get me started on the demise of the stick shift…
Copyright 2018 David Preston