Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Let Cars Be Cars

I share the sentiment of John Abell, who in a recent blog pleaded with Detroit automakers to keep making cars instead of computers.

pixar-movie-sequels-we-want-carsYes, computerization has revolutionized car making, providing safer braking systems and more fuel fuel efficient combustion. But inside the cabin, enough is enough.

My mobile “phone” these days is more camera, gaming console and video streaming device than  telephone. That suits many people who would rather text than talk. But it defeats the point for people like me who have to wade through layers and apps to make a phone call.

Now cars are following suit. Mine has an onboard computer that lets me do a lot of things I don’t need to do at the expense of things I would like to do. For example, I have enormous latitude in my navigation system, which I rarely use, but have a hard time making my dashboard display the car’s average fuel consumption per mile, which I like to track.

I’m certain this is a function of operator incompetence. Nevertheless, why can’t cars just be cars. There is an argument, with some empirical evidence to support it, that being in close communion with the operation of your car makes for better, safer driving habits. A lot of techno gadgets are designed to take your mind off driving.

Back to mobile phones for a moment, I loved the Blackberry because it married two related functions – phoning and emailing. If you couldn’t reach someone on the phone, you could email them time-critical information. You could attach documents with more detailed information. And you could accomplish all this without puzzling over annoying apps or having your phone freeze up because it was overloaded. I miss those halcyon Blackberry days that made my thumbs sore.

Now I have joined the rest of the earth in coping daily with a touch-screen device that often treats my fingers like dead digits. I am constantly, though not purposely, touching the space that activates that charming disembodied voice offering to help, but which cannot seem to understand a word I say. To date, the voice has been a bust, a feature without a function.

I find my phone has become a stressful part of daily life. It is getting to be the same with my car. While I used to dream about a new car, I now dread the thought of having to endure another round of sales pitches that tout electronic gadgetry while only casually mentioning improved safety or fuel efficiency features. Cars are becoming like phones – rolling electronic Towers of Babel.

Believe me, I understand that my ranting sounds like a grumpy old man. However, wishing for less complexity in devices that are used everyday is a plea many people would voice if they were honest.

In his blog, Abell rails against cars following in the footsteps of “smart” TVs, which he says are bloated appliances with too much technology that gets in the way of the essential qualities that we want – the ability to turn on the TV, find the channel we want and see pictures in high-quality resolution. Everything else is an interesting, but unneeded and costly bell or whistle.

Like TVs and smartphones, cars should be fun to use, not an exercise akin to assembling furniture from IKEA.

Technological advances that make our car trips safer and more fuel efficient or allow us to roll our windows up or down at the push of a button are good. Add-ons that let us read the Wall Street Journal, tune into obscure radio or music streaming venues or search for a destination while driving 60 mph are of questionable utility. They distract driver attention and ultimately detract from the driving experience. And, they push up the price of cars for no particularly good reason.

Whatever happened to the idea of making cars that were fun to drive? Instead we are headed toward cars that brake on their own and alert your car dealer to repairs without letting you know. Eventually, the driverless car will make drivers obsolete.

Before you know it, the only thing we will be able to operate manually will be the door on our smart refrigerator. And even then, the fridge may be in charge of what’s inside to eat and drink.


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