[19 May 2014]
You just want to drive fast and listen to your favorite song. Your “smart” car may have other ideas. Welcome to the future.
“About to die, about to diiiieeee…”
As you start up the car each morning and prepare to negotiate with a mass of aggressive, over-caffeinated drivers, these words are not exactly comforting to hear. But for weeks, when I plugged my phone into the USB port in my new Honda Fit and got ready to head out on the road, that phrase would not be far behind. See, when the car’s stereo system detects a new input, it begins to play the first song it can find on the device, in alphabetical order.
On my iPhone, that was The Dirty Projectors’ “About to Die”. So every day, before I could get to my Stitcher or Spotify app, I’d hear the opening drumbeat of a song I used to enjoy, but slowly grew to despise due to all the unintended plays. That particular track is now gone from my phone, my opening track replaced by the more comforting sound of Gene Vincent’s “Accentuate the Positive”.
It’s only a matter of time before I grow to hate that song, too.
Among all the issues a gently used car could have, this is a small one. But it’s also representative of the larger issues presented by the choice to put more and more “smart” technology into our previously dumb vehicles. Everywhere I looked while car shopping, I found a new system or display that promised to make driving easier or more pleasurable, as if a few extra buttons on a dashboard could wipe away that traffic jam instead of making it that much more likely that you would rear-end someone while trying to figure out where the damn defroster is.
What started with satellite radio—and I do love me some ‘90s on 9—has led to ubiquitous iPhone “integration”, proprietary navigation systems, speech commands and screens that tell you the weather, your mileage, the song that’s playing and if your kid is about to get carsick. It’s like “Pimp My Ride” infiltrated the world of sensible sedans, except instead of booming speakers and pop-up big screen TVs, Xzibit heard you like confusing interfaces.
I get it; we want to have every creature comfort in our cars because we spend so much time sitting in them. The experience should be enjoyable, but it’s only enjoyable if it works exactly as you’d expect.
I had the pleasure of riding in a rented Ford Focus recently, a car I considered purchasing at one point, but was turned off by poor reviews of its Microsoft Sync computer system. Maybe it was our fault for not plugging in a Zune, but I wouldn’t call it a great user experience. At least we were able to successfully connect a phone and get playback.
Which is more than I can say for the Nissan Versa I drove while on vacation. Despite the presence of what appeared to be a functioning USB port, we got no music and had to settle for a Donna Leon novel on CD that we’d picked up at the library at the last minute. Thankfully, for part of the trip we were able to tune in to Seattle’s great KEXP station.
Amid the fascination with all this new technology, it seems we’ve gotten away from the key point of enjoyment that comes with driving. I’m not a car guy – did I mention I drive a Honda Fit? – but I get the appeal of driving a powerful vehicle through twisty roads, wind blowing in your hair and a favorite song on the stereo. You’re picturing Tom Cruise singing “Freefallin’” in Jerry Maguire, aren’t you? It’s OK, I am too.
Well, in that scene today, Jerry might be just as likely to be cursing a “Media Not Found” message as happening upon a decent driving song on the radio.
Speaking of driving songs, I wonder where they will go when we reach that ultimate frontier of automobile technology, the self-driving car. If you read the articles, you know that Google’s getting close, and others aren’t far behind. I fully expect to have my driving responsibilities taken away during my lifetime, and I’m mostly in support of that. But it’s clear that while many parts of the driving experience will be improved – namely the whole navigating lane changes and dealing with other, accident-prone humans trying to do the same thing at the exact same time because they’re more important than you and have somewhere urgent to be – we’ll lose some things, too.
Think of all the made-for-riding songs that just won’t make as much sense when we’re not the ones in control. If I couldn’t relate much to Taj Mahal’s “Six Days on the Road” before, I certainly won’t once every highway decision is made by a computer. “Low Rider”, “Radar Love” and “Life Is a Highway” will probably just die out, driving culture the only thing keeping them alive now.
Will we be able to tell our cars to “Drive Slow” (homie) at certain points so we can check out the people we’re passing by? My guess is that, with the responsibilities of paying attention to the road ceded to something else, we’re more likely to be checking out our phones than dictating a playlist that keeps us going on a long drive. We’ll be treating our cars like personal trains and buses, hopefully with less of that stale urine scent…
This kind of progress is bound to be good for safety and efficiency, and we shouldn’t overlook the benefits just because they necessitate a cultural shift. But just as with other seemingly smart technical advances, the drawbacks are always lurking somewhere, and our hunger for more features can eventually backfire. I have to believe we’ll arrive at a positive solution, despite many false starts, bumps in the road, and whatever other driving metaphors you can come up with along the way.
For now, I’ll try and heed the overly familiar words of Gene Vincent and latch on to the affirmative – even if it feels like we’re all spending a lot of time messing with Mr. In-Between.