Technology can be your friend or it can over-complicate your driving life

By Paul Borden

A friend of mine recently bought a new SUV and told me that he loves it, except for possibly one thing. It’s not for “old people,” he said. “Too many dials and buttons.”

I can relate. Manufacturers understandably want to attract buyers with as many “gee whiz” features as they can come up with, but that comes with a downside, especially for an entire generation who grew up on cars that came only with AM radio and an analog clock that quite often didn’t run, of which I am a member of.

Getting used to all the console knobs, dials, and touchscreen icons on new vehicles can be a process that takes much longer than the week reviewers at my level get with a new model.

Some of these features and operating systems, however, really aren’t all that necessary. Some even may be on their way out if you pay attention to some automotive “experts,” replaced by other technological advances. Others just need tweaking.

Here is my personal list of the foibles of tech systems in today’s automobiles:

Adaptive Cruise Control: There’s nothing more irritating when cruising along at a set speed than coming up behind a slower vehicle with a faster one in the adjacent lane coming up behind you and requiring you to tap the brake to deactivate your standard cruise control system. Adaptive, or “Smart” Cruise Control as some automakers call it, automatically slows you until you can move safely into the passing lane and get around the slow poke in your lane. Though I haven’t had an issue with any car with ACC not slowing automatically, I wouldn’t advise engaging it when in heavy traffic.

Automatic headlights: I can’t remember the last vehicle I had for reviewing that didn’t have this feature. I like it, but I simply don’t trust the timing of systems that automatically lower your high beams. Auto-dimming mirrors, however, are a nice feature.

Automatic hold: This is a feature that surprisingly hasn’t caught on enough to become universal. My wife’s 15-year-old VW Passat has it, for instance, but the latest six-figure sedan I reviewed didn’t. When activated by pushing a button on the console or dash, it keeps your vehicle from creeping ahead at intersections so you don’t have to keep your foot on the brake. South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia also have related systems on their models that are nice additions.

One alerts you with a “ping” when a vehicle stopped ahead of you moves away in case you aren’t paying attention. The other is a camera that shows in your instrument cluster any traffic approaching your blind sides when you activate your turn signal.

Gesture control: Did anyone ever say “Gee, I wish I could just wave may hand to turn up my radio. Turning this knob is just so tiring”? At least if gesture control is included in standard equipment it won’t cost you anything, but I doubt you’ll use it much. Voice control, on other other hand, provides a nice way to operate some overly complicated infotainment systems, though I don’t use it that much. It can be frustrating to say “call Betty” and the system responds, “Do you want to call Benny?”

Navigation: The emergence of Smart phones that allow you to get turn-by-turn directions to your destination — or Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that include navigation — has led some reviewers to label built-in navigation systems as unnecessary. But if you are in heavy traffic and want to find an escape route, the larger map on your dash gives you a much clearer picture of what options you might have. I would concede that the $1,500 to $2,000 factory-installed navigation could cost you as an option may not be worth it but several manufacturers (and not just of luxury makes) are including it among their standard features.

Paddle shifters: I love it when a car shows up in my driveway with a manual transmission, but unless you are going to take your personal vehicle onto the track, there really is no good reason for paddle shifters. If you want to keep your vehicle in third gear, say for towing, you can usually do that via the shifter on the console.

Power liftgate: If your arms are loaded down with packages, you will appreciate being able to open the back of your SUV or wagon by pressing a button on your key fob or, with some vehicles, waving your foot under the rear bumper.

Surround view camera: Backup cameras are now mandatory in the U.S. for new vehicles, but if the car you have your heart set on offers a surround view camera as an option, go for it. You’ll thank me later. It’s a godsend for maneuvering in tight quarters. Rear camera systems with dynamic guidelines also are nice.

Safety systems: Recent developments like automatic braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot alert, and lane-departure warning/prevention are well worth the money if they are not included in the basic MSRP. Fortunately, many such systems are trickling down from luxury models every year it seems so you may not have to pay extra for them.

Tire pressure monitor: Admit it. You don’t check the air pressure in your tires nearly as often as you should. A tire monitoring system can help you maintain the correct pressure and warn you when one or more is too low or high. More recent systems even indicate which tire may need attention.

Touchscreens: Many infotainment functions in today’s automobiles operate off a touchscreen. The problem is that the screen quickly fills up with fingerprints that can make the screen more difficult to see when bright sunlight hits it. Plus they are just messy. Worse, some luxury manufacturers (“Hey, Mercedes”) have systems that require you to swipe the screen or a pad on the console much like a laptop computer, which can be very distracting.

Some touchscreens aren’t all that responsive either. A rotary dial on the console or hard set buttons below the touchscreen is better. Finally, I like the double-screen setup offered on a select few models (Infiniti is one) with the navigation map above the display for other functions like audio.

This list is by no means complete. You probably have your own personal likes and dislikes about the technology found in today’s cars. Keep in mind, too, that I once was a holdout against power windows because I thought them just something else that could go wrong. Now it has been years since I drove a vehicle without them and I like them. So allow for the grumpiness factor here.