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When Cars Think for Themselves: A Welcome To Our New Automotive Overlords

There's a new kind of smart car out there, one that thinks it's smarter than me. I'm talking about cars with minds of their own, ones that second-guess their owners in small and big ways -- often on things I'd rather decide for myself. Functions added to make it easier for drivers actually make things harder, forcing me to correct the car's mistakes.

Sure, I'm glad that most cars now have anti-lock brakes, which can prevent lockup in a way I'd never be able to manage. And I'm really happy about electronic stability control, which can keep me safe when I try some dumb maneuver. I'm willing to concede to the car on safety issues, but when it comes to features like infotainment and climate control, I want to be in the driver's seat.

Hands off my controls
Things cars do for me that I'd rather do for myself:

  • Automatic climate controls that shut off when a specified temperature is reached, leaving the cabin insufferably stuffy;
  • Doors that lock at speeds above five miles an hour;
  • Seatbelt alarms that go off incessantly when you put a package on the passenger seat;
  • Navigation screens that ask for assent to legalese every time the car is started;
  • Power windows that go up automatically when cars are started.
  • Convertible tops that won't move unless certain demands are met -- foot on the brake, engine shut off, breathalyzer test passed.
  • Don't even get me started on the aggravation of voice recognition.
Made in Germany
The car-as-nanny thing is much worse in German cars. I first noticed it in a Volkswagen Jetta that inexplicably lowered the radio's volume control to a whisper every time I restarted the car. I understand it's a guard against being blasted out by my teen driver's Ke$ha songs, but I'd happily live with that instead of continually turning up the volume. At VW, I went through four layers of bureaucracy before anyone would even admit that the car did this.

But if I have minor trouble with VWs, I really don't speak Audi. My test Audi A5 2.0 TFSI Quattro MT6 Coupe dimmed the radio on startup, and when backing up, too (it also activated the rear-view camera and disabled all other controls). Playing a CD was an ordeal, because the car kept telling me, wrongly, that I didn't have one loaded -- it wanted me to connect an iPod or a hard drive instead.

Sorry, I know CDs are on their way out, and I won't make that mistake of trying to play one again. An A3 Quattro solved the CD issue much more simply -- the player (hidden behind the navigation screen) simply refused to load my disk.

At this point, Audistas are going to say, "Didn't you read the 400-page manual? It says right on page 358 that you can disable that function." I don't have time to wade through often opaque manuals, and I suspect many owners beset with other responsibilities don't have time either. The manuals are full of instructions for things I'd never, ever do -- like how to text through a Bluetooth-enabled phone while simultaneously putting three voice calls on hold.

Gotta love that interface
Audi says that its notoriously finicky Multi Media Interface (almost as bad as BMW's version) is "an integral operating concept for the logically simple and intuitive operation of fitted vehicle and infotainment components." In fact, tuning the radio in an Audi is a seven-step process that will drive you to distraction.

A '55 Chevy has pushbuttons you can activate by touch. The A5 requires you to go through several distracting steps, with -- get this -- completely separate operations for tuning up and tuning down. A bonus is the sense of accomplishment you get from creating a preset. In that old Chevy, you just pulled the button out and pushed it in again. Voila!

Audi windshield wipers also seem to have a mind of their own. On a drizzly day I set them in intermittent mode, but the car didn't seem to approve -- the system kept defaulting to off. On another Audi test car, an S4 Quattro, my attempts to open the trunk via dash button or key fob were foiled for the better part of a week until I realized it had been pre-set in "valet mode." Arggh.

And they keep getting "smarter"
It's not just Audis. Cars today often have 10 million lines of computer code, and the programming is so complex that IBM is launching a consulting business for automakers to keep everything straight.

Of course, some innovations may actually be an improvement. There's a lot of potential for driver distraction with over-complicated controls. Audi has developed a system for inputting commands with eyes-on-the-road finger squiggles, and I hope it works.

Still, am I supposed to be comforted by the fact that Intel has developed "intelligent" automotive software that can "detect dangers on the road and even take control from motorists" (when going the wrong way on a one-way street, for instance)? It also stands ready to "record information about vehicle speed, steering and braking" and automatically send it to "police and insurance companies."

Eek. That's only supposed to happen following accidents, but still. How much do you trust computer chips to do the right thing? The "helpful" software in cars today is already driving me crazy.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli