On Driver Assists: Lawns, And The Need For Those Kids To Get Off Of Them

Over the last few weeks I've been exposed to cars which are a lot newer than I usually drive. My daily driver is a 2010 Mazda 3, a car which is serviceable fun to drive and entertainingly useful in day to day use. This car had things on it which I didn't really like, but didn't seem like terribly bad ideas, like:
  • automatic headlights (which worked backwards from the way that those on my 1996 Subaru did -- the Subaru had the full headlights on all the time and turned them off when the car was turned off; the Mazda has a light sensor and turns the headlights on/off according to some threshold of darkness);
  • rain-sensing wipers (which have failed on me -- now they are just variable intermittent wipers -- replacing the computer once hasn't done anything to fix the problem)
  • speed-adjusting volume (the stereo gets louder when the car goes faster to compensate for engine/road noise)
  • electric rear hatch button (which is a stupid idea because of the way it is integrated with the remote unlock).
  • speaking of which, the remote unlock on both our key fobs is now intermittent, failing to work more than 75% the first time it is tried; replacing the batteries made it briefly better and improved the functional range of the remotes, but the first-try to lock or unlock the car fails more than 75% again.
As you've probably noticed, we've sold on the Yaris in favor of a 2014 Subaru Forester. This one has a small video screen up on the dash under the windshield. It is customizable to a certain extent, but some of the screens are not helpful at all -- for example, there's a screen that shows you which wheels are currently getting power from the adaptive all-wheel drive. Frankly if I'm ever in a situation where one of the wheels isn't getting power for some reason, I should probably be too busy to look at such a screen. Others can be made useful, but do you really need to see your fuel economy averages over the past hour of driving? After much fiddling with the device, I found a screen that shows the date, the time, the estimated range of the fuel tank, and the average fuel economy for the current trip meter.

The transmission is a CVT, which I am surprised to report doesn't annoy me; it is harder to feel the speed of the car from the engine noise, since noise is no longer a function of gear and speed; but the car goes when I want it to. The faux semi-automatic-paddle-shift mode is pointless as the lag on "gear" selects is large and there isn't a ton of engine power available.

The bluetooth system is laughably primitive. There are three ways to peer your phone with the car: one way which is temporary for the current ride only, one which is more permanent but is buried in menus across the video screens and the stereo head, and one which isn't possible on this car but is included in the manual so that you'll be pissed off that no there really is an easier way to do this but screw you anyways.

It has some stupid nanny functions -- every time the temperature crosses 3 degrees Celsius, it beeps to warn you that the roads may be becoming icy. And at the two hour mark on the road, plus (I presume) every hour after that, it beeps to advise you that taking a break might be a good idea.

Speaking of beeps, the Forester also beeps like a video game -- two beeps for unlocking, three beeps for the automatic rear hatch open/close, five beeps to tell you you've tried to lock the car with a door open -- plus one more when it actually locks.

Oh, it also has a rear-view backup camera. I always feel that such things are a crutch, and that drivers will get used to just using the cameras when backing up instead of actually looking.

In July, we were off to Calgary, and we rented a 2017 Dodge Durango GT. This living room has all manner of features, but most annoying was the giant video touch screen in the center console. This screen must be three or four times the size of the one in the Forrester and had all kinds of A/V, radio, bluetooth settings like you wouldn't believe. Eventually I figured out how to just turn it off, and turning it off became one of the first things I'd do after starting the car.

After two or three days, I discovered that the over-steering wheel speedometer was also a configurable screen and much of the same information from the giant touch screen could be displayed there instead of how fast we were going. Shortly before we had to give the car back, I'd figured out how to display speedometer, odometer, trip, trip-time (engine time since the last trip reset) and trip-fuel economy. Jenn didn't like this and preferred it when the screen just had the current speed in gigantic numerals displayed.

It has push-button start, something which caused hilarity straight away when Jenn got out of the car with the fob and I drove off, rendering myself unable to turn the car back on after temporarily parking.

Instead of a gear selector leaver, it has a knob you twist back and forth to select the gear. It also has the semi-automatic-style paddles, but the car is heavy enough that there's really no point to them.

But the "feature" which I knew would cause people problem was this "engine-stop-start" thing where it would turn the engine off when you came to a stop at an intersection, then auto-start it again when you took your foot off the brake. I know that studies show that if you are going to be stopped for more than 10 or 15 seconds it is more economical to stop the engine for that period and then restart it. The thing of it is that A) most people won't bother with doing that because it is a pain and B) the amount of fuel saved with such a measure has got to be pretty low as a percentage. Oh and it stops the air conditioning which is a problem when Calgary is enjoying a heat wave of 30-degree-plus temperatures.

How does this cause problems? Well, when you come to a stop, the engine stops, and unless you remember to put the car into park, it will start up and pull away when you take your foot off the brake. I actually did this as my last act with the car -- I was sitting in the car-return line behind someone else, and when they bailed out I decided we should too -- and the car lurched forward as I started to get out. Fortunately I caught it before it went anywhere, but this feature will almost certainly cause hilarity when it gets into the hands of absent-minded soccer moms (who seem like the sort who would want a gigantic AWD SUV). This is apparently a standard feature since 2016. My 2017 car had a button to disable this feature, but of course it defaults to "on" the next time it is turned on.

This week the Forester is back in the hands of the dealer for some warranty body work, and they've left me a 2016 Subaru Legacy Sport as a loaner. And this car has it all:
  • touchscreen info-tainment system
  • video screen dashboard with more distracting options than you know what to do with
  • lane-departure warning
  • blindspot detection (which shrieks at you like crazy when you are backing up)
  • automatic speed-adjusting cruise control
  • i-Sight collision avoidance
It also has a CVT with Subaru's faux-paddle-shifter mode, same as the Forester, although I have not tried that yet.

All that plus all the video-game beeps that the Forester has.

I was driving it back to the office after picking it up, and I said -- all these screens and I can't see what time it is. I did eventually find the clock, displayed discreetly in a blue that is totally unlike the rest of the video displays and totally away from where I'd expect to find a clock, and angular-distance-wise the furthest display from the road.

Oh, and the automatic headlights now behave like the Mazda instead of like my '96 Legacy.

So far I hate all of them:
  • the touchscreen because it is impossible to interact with while driving without looking at it; there may be steering wheel controls to manage this, but they are definitely not intuitive;
  • the video screen dash has the instantaneous fuel economy usage right up at the top, which is annoying, and a couple of the display modes don't make any sense to me;
  • lane-departure seems to be turned on all the time even if you have not explicitly turned it on, but at least it hasn't bothered me too much;
  • the blindspot detection is distracting, and as mentioned, is an irritant when the car is in reverse, complete with flashing icons on the backup camera screen;
  • the speed-adjusting cruise control is pretty neat, it will even bring the car to a stop and hold the car still for you; however you have to manually tap the accelerator when the car in front moves off, and it beeps at you if you don't;
  • so far I've had the i-Sight beep at me once because it didn't like the closing speed I had on the car in front, however I couldn't tell if the car was intervening on the brakes or not.
The thing with all of these "driver assists" is that they permit the driver to indulge in lazy driving because the car just deals with it. These almost-self-driving modes that are coming (like the Tesla Autopilot) are just going to make things even worse. But the biggest problem is that people are going to adopt lazy habits -- and then cause accidents when they get into older or lesser-equipped vehicles because they don't have good habits.

But because these things Save Lives, or Save Fuel, more and more they are going to become standard equipment. And you won't be able to avoid them. And the average driver is just going to get worse at driving.

Clearly I'm an old fart -- I amazed that driving has changes so much in the last seven years. I thought the Mazda was a high tech missile when I got it, but compared to the Legacy Sport it's virtually as antiquated as the '96 Legacy was.

If I was buying today I'd want a 4-door hatchback; if it was to be mine alone I'd want a 5-speed but family dynamics and finances dictate that this would be a shared car, so automatic or CVT it will probably be. But I'd want as few of these driver assist features as possible, and the ones I did get I'd want to turn off as much as possible.

Until fully-automatic driving is a reality, drivers need to keep aware of, and be actively engaged in, driving -- but it isn't -- and that's a subject for another time.


Spiderman: Homecoming

So totally not for me it isn't funny. I'm too old to sit through teenagers making dumb decisions and acting painfully lame. Yes, I was just as lame when I was that age -- but I'm not any more. Didn't make me want another Iron Man movie, this had just the right amount of Tony Stark in it. No desire to see it again.