My car thinks I’m an idiot
By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: April 12, 2019
“Your fuel level is low. Would you like to navigate to the nearest gas station?” an unfamiliar male voice called out. I glanced at the other seats in my new car, but I was entirely alone. Then I saw the words displayed across my vehicle’s digital screen.
My car was talking to me.
More specifically, it was passively-aggressively telling me what to do. It was the first time it had asked me a direct question since I bought the car back in January. But I wasn’t surprised. In the past few months, I had learned that my new car most certainly believed it was smarter than I am.
Ever since we made the $400 trade-in on our 2005 minivan with 240,000 miles on her odometer, I had been driving around in the veritable lap of luxury. My new SUV was better, cleaner, faster and cooler than my old minivan was in every way. However, my new car brought new problems.
When I drove my old minivan, I was the superior one. Aside from complicated mechanics, which I left up to qualified automobile repair shops to deal with, I controlled everything in that vehicle. Having put most of her 240,000 miles on her myself, I knew exactly how to manually adjust the sound system (with its handy-dandy tape deck), the heat and AC, the seat positions, the headlights, the doors and all other systems. There was no digital display, no voice recognition feature, no navigation system, no Bluetooth capability, no automatic doors, no heated steering wheel, no keyless start, no camera system.
She was not hands-free, but rather, totally hands-on.
During those meager minivan years, I was a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. My minivan was my primitive island, and I was forced to make do. Like Crusoe, “I had nothing to covet, for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying; I was Lord of the whole Manor ... I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed, rather than what I wanted.”
I didn’t complain that the van’s carpets were tainted with years worth of spilled juice boxes and kids’ upchuck; I just spritzed them with Febreze and carried on. I didn’t gripe when the roof sprouted a leak; I just covered it with duct tape. I didn’t demand a new car when the door handle fell off; I just got in on the other side.
Through ingenuity and self-reliance, I became the Master of my minivan’s Domain. The Lady of the Manor. The Queen of the Castle.
But now I drive a German-engineered vehicle with complicated digital systems that did not exist when my old minivan was manufactured back in 2005. My new car senses my confusion and takes control, as if I am a complete idiot.
It recognizes my voice, detects my phone, knows everyone in my contact list, turns on my Audible book to the page where I left off, adjusts my seat to my pre-set specifications, warns me that the gas is too low, and offers to find the nearest gas station. It controls the climate inside the car for me, heats my steering wheel and my seat, and knows exactly when a little defrost is needed to avoid fogging up the windows. It even turns my lights and wipers on when they are needed, and turns them off when they are not.
Despite all this newfangled automation, I still look back after parking the car and wonder, “Is it really going to turn the lights out for me? What if it doesn’t, and the battery goes dead?” Until I learn to trust machines, I’ll wait out in the cold until the lights blink out, just to make sure.
My new car has made it painfully clear that I am unqualified to operate its advanced systems. I wouldn’t be surprised if it snapped at me, “Eh-Eh! Don’t touch! Let me handle it so you don’t screw anything up.” Although I don’t want my minivan back, I sometimes yearn for the empowerment I felt when I was Master of my Domain.