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In car technology we could do without
By David Linklater • 23/02/2015
Clever technologies seem like a good idea but maybe it's time to get back to basics
The car industry is always coming up with clever new technology and comfort-convenience features. While these tend to be restricted to top-end models at first, they soon trickle down through model ranges to the maximum number of buyers. Usually, that's a good thing.
But sometimes, it seems that the car industry is so busy being pleased with how clever it is and car buyers are so stoked to have new toys to play with, nobody bothers to really think hard and ask whether they're worthwhile.
We reckon there are plenty of increasingly commonplace technologies we could do without. Here are our five of the worst.
Please stay with us: this is not the usual rant about how if you can't park your own car you shouldn't have a licence. (Although you really shouldn't).
But we do wonder whether cars that park themselves are an annoyance to other road users and a means to undermining the good judgment and spacial awareness required to drive a car safely.
Automated parking is one of those "because we can" technologies that's been made possible by electric power steering, really good radar and (on some cars) sophisticated camera systems.
Here's the problem: once you activate self-parking, you spend a lot of time trawling along at low speed, waiting for the technology to identify a suitable space and getting in everybody else's way. This is especially true on busy city streets, which is exactly where you're going to be using it.
True, some self-parking systems are incredibly quick and accurate once they're under way, but others are complex and unreliable. Factor in the entire process - identify space, get the car in there, complete the manoeuvre - and we'd be very surprised if the human driver wasn't quicker every time.
Capacitive controls aren't intuitive enough - bring back buttons!
Yes, we're all obsessed with smartphones and their capacitive touch-screens, letting us not only select items but also swipe and pinch, enlarge or shrink them.
But does that mean we need capacitive controls in cars? Apparently yes, given the way that this technology is creeping into prestige models and down into the mainstream.
What's the problem, we hear you ask? Well, it's fine on a mobile device because you're actually holding it and looking at what you're doing all the time. You can control all those finger movements with a great deal of finesse because the device is like an extension of your body (too much so with some people).
In a car, you're never holding the device you're operating, so it's a much less intuitive experience. The nature of the technology also requires you to be looking carefully at the screen you're working with, which is not conducive to keeping your eyes on the road. So all of your attention goes towards making sure that the movements of your fingers correspond correctly to what you're trying to achieve on the screen. We're rapidly getting to the point where you have to pull over to safely operate satellite navigation or infotainment that relies on a capacitive control. Click, click - bring back buttons!
The kick-motion boot (above) often needs more than a few passes to activate.
Seems like such a clever idea, doesn't it? You come back to your car with a handful of shopping or luggage and instead of having to fumble for the keys, you simply "kick" your foot under the bumper and the tailgate or boot opens automatically.
In reality, it's all a bit of a disaster. So often with these systems, you have to make such a broad sweep with your foot that you end up crouching over on one leg with those heavy bags, looking less than elegant. Especially if you don't quite sweep the right spot and you're still standing there staring at a closed tailgate after a couple of tries.
If the tailgate does open, you quite often have to step back out of the way to avoid the imminent threat of a bootlid badge in the chin.
In reality, a conventional powered tailgate is still a better option, even if you can't reach for your keys. If you have to get close enough to the car to kick anyway, it's just as easy to use a free finger to trigger the boot release and let the electrics do the rest.
One Korean carmaker has solved the entire problem in such a way that must make the rest of the car industry feel kind of stupid. It works like this: if the car has been locked for a period of time, you simply walk to the tailgate and as long as you have the keys in your pocket or bag, the boot will open automatically after a few seconds. No dancing required. Well, duh.
Continuously variable transmissions with 'gears'
Continuously variable transmission (CVT) is the gearbox technology of choice for many Japanese makers. No problem with that.
You may well be familiar with it: instead of having a sequence of ratios, a CVT works by belt or chain to continuously alter gearing depending on the driving situation. It's an odd sensation if you're new to it, as engine speed does not always equate to road speed. But it has its strengths, especially in smoothness around town and fuel economy.
However, many carmakers are now pretending that you can have manual control over a CVT, by introducing modes with a set number of gears (really just preselected steps) that you can cycle through. Some have six, some have seven, some have eight. It could just as easily be 56 or 143.
It's all nonsense of course and they're really not fooling anybody, because even in pseudo-manual mode you get the characteristic 'slip' of CVT. More to the point, pretending CVT has a sequence of set gear ratios holds owners back from learning the different driving style required to really get the best out of this idiosyncratic transmission technology.
Automatic lights don't illuminate at dusk.
A controversial one this, because automatic headlights are now so common. Granted, in Europe, where you might be charging down an autostrada and encountering a tunnel every few kilometres, this technology is quite handy.
But here in New Zealand, it has its problems. Have you ever driven a car with automatic headlights that illuminate when you want them to? Exactly. You always seem to spend an hour driving in fading light, wondering why the headlights haven't come on yet. Unless you get a tunnel to kick-start them.
Ostensibly, automatic lights eliminate the danger of a driver forgetting to turn them on - which can easily happen when you're under street lighting in the city. That's good. But an unfortunate side effect is that many more drivers are on the road at dusk (a dangerous time) with no headlights, because they trust that their automatic lamps will turn on at the appropriate time.
Is there any reason why we shouldn't have our lights on all the time anyway? The campaign to replace automatic lights with always-on lights starts here.