I got into writing about cars because I enjoy driving — which is why I find myself less and less interested in new cars.
As our roads have congealed into mobile parking lots where it doesn’t matter whether you’re driving a ‘78 Chevette or brand-new Corvette; as the automakers fall over each other in their frantic scramble to idiot-proof their products against an ever-less-competent driving public; as traffic laws become more and more over the top (and wet diaper totalitarian), the joy of new cars - even very powerful ones — wanes.
What, after all, is the point of owning a 500 horsepower Mustang Cobra in a world where using even half of that capability (if you can find a place to do so) risks a felony (drive faster than 80 mph in many states, and that’s what you’ve opened yourself up to)?
And the Cobra is one of the very few modern performance cars that actually lets you — the driver — decide how much power to apply, when and in what manner. Most new performance cars have some kind of “dynamic” or “active” electronic controller that will only permit so much hooliganism. Spinning the tires is either not allowed at all — or severely limited — by the electronics. There may be an “off” button, but these system don’t shut themselves off, at least not completely. The transistorized nanny is a suffocating omnipresence that makes driving even a very high-powered car far less engaging than driving a non-neutered car of far less potential capability. Having 100 percent control of a “50 percent car” is better, in my mind, than having 50 percent control of a 100 percent car.
The automakers are systematically working to take the driver out of the equation; it may not be deliberate — and is probably more due to the convergence of piranha lawyers on the one hand and mewling mobs of “safety” advocates on the other. Still, the end result is the same. New cars are increasingly defined by the presence of “perpetual training wheels” that not only presume incompetence — but encourage more of it.
For instance, consider the electronic parking system Lexus now offers on its top-of-the-line LS sedan. Using sensors, an electronic brain and various actuators, the thing is capable of sizing up a potential parking space, determining how the wheels should be cocked to slide in — and basically drives itself into the spot. It’s fascinating stuff, from a technical standpoint. But it must be asked: If a person is lacking the skills to safely and efficiently guide his car into a parking spot without help from the onboard nanny, perhaps this person needs a few remedial hours of “behind the wheel” training, eh?
And what do we make of “lane departure” warning systems that beep at you if the car begins to wander over the double yellow line? Is it asking too much to ask that drivers actually pay attention to what the car is doing?
The nut of it all is that these “advances” result in drivers who are detached from the act of driving; who are more and more like passengers, regardless of seating position. It’s not too hard to imagine a future car of five years hence that will handle the entire job, curb to curb.
But it’s a pretty bleak thing to contemplate for those who can recall a better time, when driving well was a skill to be proud of and which took some time to acquire. When cars were a little bit scary — and demanded full time and attention. Learn to master something like an old F100 with three on the tree (and no hydraulic assist for the clutch) and you came away from it with a sense of accomplishment — and generally speaking, were competent to drive virtually anything on wheels in a way that today’s crowd, who grew up with “modern” cars, can’t begin to appreciate.
It’s a shame for them — because they’re missing out on some great experiences. And it bodes ill for the future — because the skill level of the typical driver is sure to get worse, not better. That will require more built-in idiot-proofing technology, more suffocating laws — and perhaps make the whole thing not worth the effort.
I’m glad I got my licks in before things got ugly….
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