The car tech solutions that seemed like good ideas
INNOVATION can equal aggravation. Just because a car maker has added some hi-tech feature to the latest model doesn't guarantee it's a good idea. Even very senior auto industry executives know it …
"Some of the stuff is not so useful as it seems in brochures," Harald Wester said in an interview back in 2015. The straight-talking German engineer, boss of Maserati at the time, was explaining why he thinks brand heritage is more important than glam technology.
"Whenever you test a car and after an hour you are looking for the switching-off button, you know that you are enjoying a feature which you do not really want."
These days Wester is chief operating officer at Maserati and chief technical officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, owner of the Italian luxury brand. He's worked in past for Volkswagen, Audi and Ferrari.
With premium-brand tech now trickling down into more affordable cars, it's time to be blunt about some cutting-edge stuff.
ACTIVE LANE KEEPING ASSIST
Theory: Steers vehicle so it stays in its lane. Some also apply the brakes on only one side of the vehicle, pulling it to the left or right. When the driver's mind wanders, the car shouldn't.
Reality: Uses forward-facing cameras to "see" lane markings, so they don't work on roads where there are none. Indistinct markings cause problems, as does poor light.
Even when working as designed, this tech isn't as useful as it should be. "Pinballing" from one side of the lane to the other is common in less polished versions.
Other more decisive auto steering activity can be scary. Active lane-keeping systems occasionally will pull a car away from danger too sharply or fight a driver steering away from a danger that they can see but the car can't.
With active cruise control to take care of acceleration and braking, and active lane-keeping tech to do the steering, sometimes it can seem like a car is capable of driving itself. Some manufacturers tempt drivers to put too much trust in the tech, despite the bugs. Tesla's Autopilot is the outstanding example. If a car has a steering wheel, that's where your hands should be.
ACTIVE CRUISE CONTROL WITH STOP-GO
Theory: Cruise control that works in stop-start traffic. Mercedes-Benz says its version, branded Distronic Active Distance Assist, is " … particularly convenient in stop-and-go traffic".
Reality: When traffic ahead moves away there's a long pause before moving off, usually at a snail-like rate. Hurrying human drivers will cut in ahead, horns will blare behind. Other commuters will think you're an idiot.
Theory: Use your hands and fingers to interact with your car's infotainment … without touching the screen.
Reality: First step, learn the sign language needed to make it work. When you look like a mime artist with Tourette's, you're fluent. Then you'll find gesture control isn't as precise or as quick as using a normal touchscreen. Or a good rotary controller like BMW's iDrive. Or an old-fashioned physical knob or button. The one gesture you'll want to give it involves only one finger …
Theory: See in the dark, thanks to on-screen infra-red images showing what your headlights can't.
Reality: Drags driver's eyes away from the road, never a great idea. The extra-sensory images aren't always easy to interpret, and might even make you feel queasy. The best active headlight tech is a much better night-driving aid.
Theory: Use your car's centre screen just like a smartphone or tablet, with familiar tapping, swiping and pinching.
Reality: Ever tried threading a needle while riding a roller coaster? Using a touchscreen in a moving car, especially on lumpy roads, is almost as difficult. Porsche designed a ledge in the dash of its new 911, right below the central touchscreen, to provide a solid support for the driver's tapping finger. It's better than nothing but doesn't solve the problem.