On a recent business trip, I encountered first-hand an "intelligent assist" automatic feature on a rented car. I had read about these features, for anti-collision and safety. But the hands-on experience was unpleasant and left me with the conclusion that I would avoid it in the future. Perhaps most disconcerting was that neither the rental company nor the car provided any warning or instruction on these automaton features, how they might affect me, or how to turn them off.
I left the rental company, pulled onto the highway and engaged the cruise control. As, is my habit with the cruise engaged, I then focused solely on the road and could now ignore the speedometer. Far ahead, a car pulled onto the road, and seemed to increase speed, seemingly maintaining the distance between us. My brain struggled with this, because I had expected to have to brake and slow when I saw the car pull out. I was pleased that it had seemingly accelerated to prevent that need. I was to learn I was wrong.
After a few miles of the two cars at the exact same pace, the vehicle ahead executed a right turn from the highway. Immediately, my rental vehicle surged forward markedly and without warning. Glancing at the speedometer, I realized that the other vehicle had not maintained speed in front of me at all. Instead, my rental vehicle had in fact slowed markedly, more than 10 miles per hour, from the speed to which I had set the cruise, in order to avoid collision.
My first reaction to this experience was simply that this vehicle was defective. Surely, if a vehicle is not going to perform like other vehicles, there would be some warning or instruction? I recently blogged about a motor vehicle accident that may have been in part caused by a lack of familiarity with a high performance car and its features. Once I entered the Interstate, this cycle (automatic deceleration, followed by sudden and violent acceleration) repeated itself multiple times.
In an unrelated issue, this car made a beeping noise every time I changed lanes, more on that below. This was a distraction as I struggled to adapt to the cruise control issue. Regarding the cruising speed, I began to notice that when a vehicle was approximately 100 yards in front of me, my rental vehicle would begin decelerating gradually. Once it dawned on me that this was not an unintended defect, but a purposeful design, I was intrigued as to how this worked. I was unable to turn it off however.
Initially, I was uncertain whether the deceleration was accomplished merely by less fuel (the cruise system), or whether the vehicle autonomously applied the brakes to maintain separation. Later in the drive, I topped a small hill to find a very slow-moving trailer ahead in my lane. This rental vehicle braked immediately and dramatically, slowing far more quickly than could be caused merely by decreased fuel flow. This car was effectively driving itself, with my only required input being to steer.
My curiosity was peaked. I began experimenting with the system. I found that even when the system caused deceleration, I could override its decision with the accelerator pedal. The autonomous operation was controlling the cruise control and the brakes, but not disabling the accelerator. I was therefore in control, but only learned that over time and through experimentation. And that incessant beeping continued unabated with each lane change.
I eventually found a dashboard display screen depicting the hood of the vehicle. I found that as I approached each potential obstacle, an image of a sedan would appear, indicating the presence of that vehicle ahead of me. Thus, if the pictures were carefully observed (instead of watching the road), a driver could facilitate a set speed merely by changing lanes or manually accelerating each time that icon appeared. But, from my few years of driving, the whole point of cruise control to me is not having to keep an eye on the instruments, and concentrating instead on the road.
The next intrusion of this automaton occurred about 70 miles into my trip. A new beep was heard, and looking at the instrument cluster I saw a message advising me to "take a rest." I travel on highways a great deal. I have been for many years of my life. Not since I was a toddler has anyone (or anything) told me when it is time for me to rest. I was a bit nonplussed by this car doing so. How would it know if I am tired? My habit is to stop when the gas tank is empty, and I have often driven 400 miles between stops, not 70 minutes. Was the car recording my non-compliance with its rest recommendation? Had there been an accident, would the "black box" have informed that I ignored rest advice?
Back to all that other lane-changing beeping; this vehicle annoyingly and persistently beeped. At first, it seemed random, and no amount of re-fastening the seat belt seemed to change it (that is the only thing that beeps on my 1997 vehicle). In time, I noticed the beeping was tied to changing lanes or otherwise approaching the lines painted on the road. Figuring this out again involved changing the dashboard screen display. There was an optional display setting I eventually found that displayed two parallel white lines. With some experimentation, I realized that the beeping accompanied one of these lines flashing from white to red. And, coincidentally, when it did so my tires on the red side of the car were then close to or on the highway paint stripes. This car could somehow "see" the highway.
Overall, I did not enjoy the experience. I will do my best to never rent a similar car in the future. I am thoroughly familiar with and comfortable with the vehicles of the twentieth century. This more recent adaptive technology was not comforting or helpful, but distracting and uncomfortable. I longed for a "normal" car. I realize that the time I can cling to the 1990s is limited. Eventually all these antique cars I am used to and enjoy will wear out and I will be thrust into the next paradigm.
Perhaps before that occurs, manufacturers will become more adept at (1) disclosing the presence, features, and limitations of these devices and systems, (2) discover a method of these systems' interaction with the driver that does not involve making multiple changes to the display screen in the instrument cluster to understand, and (3) providing a method for us old codgers to "opt out" of their gracious assistance and instead drive like we learned back in the day (a simple, large, obvious dash button labelled "codger mode" would be nice).
Come to think of it, that would be a neat feature on a variety of things, like "smart phones," television remotes, and more. Have the features, feed the tech desires of the young folks, but include a single, simple, obvious button for some of the rest of us to "codger out." Maybe there could even be a warning for other motorists, with a flashing yellow light outside the car that alerts other drivers I have engaged "codger mode?" Think about it, hotels, car rental companies, and more could advertise their codger-friendly environments and products? It just ain't easy getting older.