Are Our Cars Making Us Lazy?
Automated systems are ubiquitous in today's high-tech autos. Some are essential, others not so much.
In 1940, the now defunct American carmaker Packard introduced its ultraluxurious 180 Series touring sedan with a minuscule feature that would change the automotive landscape forever. The company outfitted the posh 4-door with powered windows rather than a standard crank-driven system — push a button, the window went down; push it again, the window went up.
This feature was a marvel of engineering. It was also probably the first completely frivolous auto amenity. But more importantly, it sparked the development of hundreds of automated systems — electromechanical or, more recently, digital — designed to handle tasks that motorists could otherwise do for themselves.
By the mid-1940s, power windows were everywhere, next seen on Ford Lincoln Custom limousines, then shortly after in Cadillacs, followed by Buicks and so on. Before the end of the decade, power seats made their debut, and power steering arrived in the early 1950s.
In 1957, Cadillac introduced the most automated automobile of its time: the Brougham. A limited-edition version of the Cadillac Eldorado, the Brougham was designed to be the most luxurious car in the world. It was assembled by hand; came with slick, rear-facing "suicide" doors; and had a list of "world first" features, such as an automatic starter, a transistor radio, memory seats and a trunk that opened and closed with the push of a button.
While the Brougham's feature list was impressive, it left many driving purists wondering: Are all of these technologies designed to make driving more pleasurable really necessary, or are they just making us lazier drivers? This sentiment is gaining momentum once again in today's high-tech automotive world — and not just from driving enthusiasts.
The Downside of Automation
As incredible as the Brougham was back in the day, modern vehicles such as the Lexus LS 460 put it to shame in terms of available high-tech bells and whistles. An optioned-up LS 460 can have rain-sensing automatic wipers, an auto-closing trunk lid, auto-adjusting high beams, power windows and sunshades, power door closers, a voice-controlled GPS navigation system, an electronically controlled braking system that overrides simultaneous gas- and brake-pedal application, and an automated system that will parallel-park the car for you.
These features are not just the province of the luxury-vehicle segment anymore. The 2011 Chrysler Town & Country minivan can be outfitted with a power liftgate, dual power side doors and power-folding third-row seats, as well as the usual complement of power front seats, power mirrors and electrochromic dimming mirrors. Push all the buttons at once, and the vehicle's dozens of motors whir and buzz in a battery-straining ballet, letting the kids spill out the sides unsupervised while the groceries dump out the back and into the driveway.
While all of these features are meant to be helping hands, their benefits often blind motorists to their drawbacks. And it's definitely worth considering exactly what all this automation is doing to us as drivers.
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As it turns out, automated systems can cause some pretty distressing problems. For instance, power windows have long been recognized as a child safety hazard. A 2004 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study estimated that power windows killed an average of five children per year. Regulators have now required that all vehicles from the 2008 model year forward use automatic window controls that are less likely to be triggered by children.
And there is a cultural issue at stake as well: the loss of skills that occurs when humans voluntarily abdicate responsibility to machines. Consider the breakdown of navigational skills due to our reliance on GPS devices. Many people no longer pay attention to landmarks and other geographic indicators as they drive, and the skill of map reading is fading as well.
Even some proven safety systems have drawbacks. Performance-driving enthusiasts have long held a low opinion of stability-control systems. They believe that because the technology saves bad drivers from their own mistakes, they are more likely to drive beyond their abilities.
"The performance community is always going to have a backlash against technology; that's just their personality," says Christopher Nowakowski, a human factors researcher at California PATH at the University of California at Berkeley. Nowakowski allows that crash data suggest that stability control does save lives. Nevertheless, he says the data don't measure the influence of sloppy, overconfident drivers on other people's accidents.
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The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that automatic transmissions are bad for the population as a whole. Why? They encourage people to speed up rapidly on the highway and then come to a sudden stop. I bet that people would be less aggressive in traffic if they had to shift gears every time they did the “rapid speed up to sudden stop” maneuver. Also, many people don’t change their fluids, resulting in premature transmission failure. We would be better off if we saved automatics for people with disabilities.
Maybe instead of all these electronic appendages - we should make getting a DRIVING license a LOT tougher. Like Finland driving license tough.
Do that and you'll have much better drivers and much fewer things going wrong that spuriously get blamed on the technology....