Cars.co.za's David Taylor thinks the automotive industry has become obsessed with adding convenience features and personalisable user settings to cars. Thankfully, however, the same attentiveness has been applied to the safety systems, and we're all the better off for it.
I was driving in the newish Volvo XC90 the other day and had my girlfriend in the car with me. She was asking me about the features, and I relished rattling off all the specifications and demonstrating how smart this Swedish SUV is. It really was a worthy category winner in the Cars.co.za Consumer Awards.
Then she asked, "how many people use these features?" and that got me thinking. Have we reached a saturation point where people just couldn't care whether their cars can do all the amazing things their manufacturers list in brochures. How many of those functions do people use regularly, let alone daily?
The current level of tech in cars is daunting and, at times, overwhelming. I have subsequently discovered that BMW has a job in its European dealerships called BMW Genius and they spend their time educating owners about what their cars can do. According to BMW, "your main responsibility will be to use your engaging personality to inspire and excite customers in the BMW Centre about the features and benefits of the latest BMW products and technologies."
Some of the features do make motoring life simpler, but does that make them necessary?Let's take self-parking for example. I've noticed many smaller cars such as the Opel Adam and Mini Cooper are capable of parallel-parking themselves, but if you're unable to park one of these smaller vehicles, let's face it, you probably need to retake your driving test. I get this feature on a larger and more expensive car, or on a vehicle that has limited visibility (a low-slung sportscar, for example). I wouldn't feel too comfortable trying to parallel park a Range Rover Autobiography in the confines of Sea Point and as this video shows, this is a worthwhile feature.
Can we talk about the overwhelming plethora of driving modes on performance cars? Surely when you're driving something sporty, you'd want two modes? Comfort and Sport. So why do we have Comfort, Normal, Sport, Race and Eco? It gets even more complicated with that word "Individual" where you can cross pollinate settings from each mode. I like the engine noise from Race mode, but I want a soft ride so I'll have the suspension set to Comfort, Steering set to Sport, and the gearbox set to Normal so it doesn't snap my neck with each shift. I like this level of customisation, but I do wonder how many performance vehicle owners spend time setting their cars up for driving conditions... or do they just get in and drive?
While on the subject of personalisation, have you ever gone into the depths of the menu on a high-end Mercedes-Benz? You can change the colour of the interior lighting, how long you want the headlights to stay on once you've locked the car and on some of the grander models, even choose the type of massage you want. Too much?
Does anyone use voice control? Sure, some of the systems I've tried work well (such as Ford's SYNC), but even then I find it quicker to push the few buttons to find my desired song as opposed to having to repeat myself and getting frustrated. Good luck getting your car to play your songs if you're a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd... I also find climate control temperature settings a little too precise. What's wrong with 22'C? Why does it have to be 21.5C? Can you feel the difference in temperature? I doubt it.
Five ways cars can save your life (and your insurance premiums)
While this piece may sound like I'm grumbling, let it be known that I'm a massive fan of the comprehensive range of safety features. So in order to give this article a positive takeaway, here are five safety features that will blow your mind:
Electronic Stability Control
There are many names for this system, but they all essentially do the same thing. If you're in the unfortunate scenario where you've had to swerve to avoid an accident and are now at risk of becoming an accident yourself, ESP will detect the loss in traction and body control, and do its best to regain control of the car. It does this by individually braking each wheel and reducing engine power. These may sound small, but its usually enough to bring the vehicle under control. The best part? ESP is completely automatic and you don't need to do anything except brake. Here's how it works:
Active Brake Assist
A car that automatically brakes when it detects an impending collision sounds too good be true, but it's fast becoming a reality on many automotive products. Mercedes-Benz has this technology nailed down. The system uses cameras to continually scan the road ahead and it'll pick up errant pedestrians and stationary vehicles in your path. It will sound an alert that a collision is likely and that you need to take action. If you don't react, the car will intervene and bring the car to a complete halt. Watch it in action:
Cross Traffic Alert
How many times have you reversed out of a shopping mall parking bay and been unable to see if there are any other cars heading in your vehicle's path? Car guards are not always present either, so what's available? Land Rover's Reverse Traffic Detection uses radar (mounted on the vehicle's rear) to warn you about approaching vehicles. If the system thinks a collision is likely, it will alarm you via audio, your mirrors as well as alerts on the reverse camera screen. Given how big some SUVs are these days, reversing them has become a bit of an issue. See how the system works here:
Adaptive Cruise Control
Radar-guided cruise control is very clever as well. It's a system that uses radar to measure the distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you. Using this data, your car is able to stay at a preset distance from a vehicle it is following in low-visibility conditions such as at night and when it's raining. I do wonder how useful it is as the car generally leaves a considerable following distance between it and the car in front. That gap then gets taken up by another road user, the car slows down to make another gap and the process repeats itself. Here it is in action:
Many vehicle manufacturers have resorted to projecting vital data onto the windscreen of a vehicle, much in a military fighter jet. The principle is that you'll never need to take our eye off the road as the most important info you need is simply in front of you. Many brands are making use of this tech, but the best I've sampled so far has to be the new BMW 7-Series.
Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of Cars.co.za or its editorial content team.