New Cars Ain’t What They Used to Be

A friend of ours whose age is somewhere north of seventy
recently bought a new pickup truck. 
Soon afterwards, in text messages she started calling herself
“Keyfob.”  When we asked
why, she said, “Well, that’s what my truck calls me.  When I get out of it it says, ‘Keyfob
has left the vehicle.'”

She has a new truck because she totaled her previous truck
in a collision that she survived largely because of safety features that newer
models have.  So no one should
think I’m opposed to innovative technology in the automotive industry in
general, especially when it contributes to safety.  But as Chicago Tribune
reporter Robert Duffer recently pointed out, some of the innovations that
carmakers have inflicted on new-car buyers recently can be annoying, confusing,
or downright dangerous.

Duffer cites a J. D. Power survey of new-car-owner
complaints that showed the category broadly described as
“infotainment” was responsible for more complaints than anything
else.  This includes things like
touch screens, voice-activated commands, and touch-sensitive controls for radios
and music players.  It turns out
that by 2018, safety rules will mandate that every new car have a backup
camera, and consequently a display screen will have to be somewhere in the
driver’s view.  Carmakers eager to
get a competitive advantage are not going to leave such an opportunity alone,
and you can expect they will pile more and more features into that screen in
addition to simply displaying the backup camera output. 

Some of the problems with new cars stem from the fact that
they are almost completely “fly-by-wire” in the sense that many
driver outputs—accelerator, gearshift, and so on—don’t do anything mechanical
directly, but instead go to electronic sensors that run instructions through
the car’s CPU to execute commands, and similarly with the instrumentation that
provides driver inputs.  Airline
pilots, with their sophisticated and recurring training, managed the transition
from mechanical airplane controls to fly-by-wire technology pretty well, but
there were some glitches along the way even in that highly specialized realm.

Duffer provides evidence that when you take the average
driver, whose total training to drive nowadays may consist in a few sketchy
lessons under the reluctant tutelage of a parent decades ago, and plop him or
her into a cockpit with literally dozens of new control surfaces, menus,
options, and ways of doing things that used to be done basically the same way
by automakers for decades but are now completely different, you’re going to
have problems.

Perhaps the most striking issue was the way some
manufacturers misused the privilege of making the gearshift lever absolutely
any way they want to now.  Back in
the days of the column-mounted automatic gearshift lever, Duffer reminds us
that the sequence “PRNDL” for “park-reverse-neutral-drive-low”
was pretty standard.  Anybody back
then could get into any car and at least know how to shift it.  But BMW and Fiat-Chrysler both went on
the market in the last few years with gearshifts that defaulted to neutral, so
the driver could turn off the engine and get out of the car with the vehicle
still in neutral. 

For drivers who had developed the bad but understandable
habit of relying on a car’s transmission parking driveshaft-lock feature to
keep the car from rolling, rather that setting the parking brake, this new
feature was an accident waiting to happen.  And it did happen to a number of people, the most famous of
whom was a Star Trek actor named Anton Yelchin who was pinned between his Jeep Cherokee and a brick
column when his car rolled at him and crushed him to death.  Most of those cars have now been
recalled to fix this issue, which never should have showed up in the first

With freedom comes responsibility, and the new freedom that
automakers enjoy to reinvent the driving experience comes with a responsibility
to make sure that the average driver is not inconvenienced or worse by
innovations that look attractive at first, but turn out to be annoying or

A lesson can be drawn from the early days of automobiles
prior to 1925 or so, when there were literally dozens of carmakers vying for
what promised to be a huge and growing market.  Henry Ford’s Model T, produced in some form from 1908 all
the way to 1927, is not a machine that your average driver today could get
going without some lessons.  Even
when an electric starter was added in 1919, the operator had to manipulate two
steering-column-mounted levers (one was the throttle and the other was the
spark-timing advance) and manage three foot pedals, two of which dealt with a
mysterious planetary transmission that was part manual and part automatic.  By the mid-1920s, however, the
accelerator had moved to the floor and the brake and clutch pedal position had
stabilized in most newer makes, and there the matter stood until automatic
transmissions came along. 

Then the question arose of where to put the automatic transmission
controls.  It started out as a lever on the steering column, but even as early as the 1950s the
designers started experimenting. 
The ill-fated Edsel, for example, had a series of buttons on the
dashboard to control the transmission, which probably led to problems like
putting the car into reverse on the freeway when all you wanted to do was turn
on the heater.  Eventually, with
the advent of front bucket seats, the between-the-seats gearshift lever showed
up, but even that standard has been tinkered with to the endangerment of the
public, as the story of the Star Trek star showed.

Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but a movement among
automakers to standardize on a few basic features that all new cars will have
in the same place that work in the same way would be welcome, at least by
drivers who are no longer young enough to learn completely different operating
systems each time they buy a new car. 
At the very least, the car companies should view all software and
hardware innovations with a mind to safety first, lest we have more potentially
fatal problems such as the default-to-neutral gearshift. 

As for me, I’m going to hang on to my old vehicles till the
wheels fall off, or maybe just before.

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