Cars with Stupid Smarts

Note to self: Never buy a modern car unless you can disable all the “smarts” in a sneaky enough way as to not void the warranty. I’m sure the engineers who build in said “smarts” have the best of intentions, but it doesn’t do much good for confidence when a large, dangerous piece of machinery under your control is continually second-guessing you. My rental in MD had several of these traits, which did a great job of making me glad my own car (’96 vintage) is smart enough to play dumb.

Here are some specific stupid smarts I never want to see in a vehicle:

  • Window-Knows-Best
  • Ok, you’re the driver, master of this metal beast, doing 85 down 95 and you want to open your window a crack – just a crack – to get some air, without turning your drive into an impromptu wind tunnel test. So you ever so briefly tap the window-down button and ZZZZZT! It gets a mind of its own, zips all the way to the bottom and blows all your important papers out the window. Not an electrical fault; they’re actually designing ’em that way now. Seriously, wtf?

  • Car alarm with an attachment disorder
  • The purpose of a car alarm is to keep thieves–as in real ones–out of your vehicle. The alarm should not go off when you validly unlock the vehicle first, using its own key, then open the door. If keys are no longer considered a strong enough form of authentication, they shouldn’t unlock the door in the first place, let alone start the vehicle. The rental did exactly this, including right at the entrance to a secure facility, which I was sure would bring beefy coppers running. I figured out eventually that if I only ever locked or unlocked it with the keyless entry fob, it wouldn’t alarm when opened. (Since in my 8+ years of driving, I’ve only ever owned cars that you unlock with a key, that’s kind of the habit I’m in.)

    Now, I’m sure there’s some “system” to these newer, nondeterministic styles of car alarms, but I certainly don’t have the time or give-a-shit to psychoanalyze each manufacturer’s alarm engineer and work out just what the hell he was thinking. I think some have operation that’s dependent on which method you used to lock the door most recently (power lock button, manual lock button, key, or keyfob lock button), forcing you to remember which you used each time and use the exact same procedure to unlock when you return. Some, like my old man’s ‘Vette, punish you for using the keyfob button to lock (alarm sets if the fob is used, not if the switch is used), and some the exact other way around. I think some just alarm randomly because they like the attention.

    (For this particular car, opening the door – alarm or not – also caused the hazard blinkers to sometimes, but not always, turn on and blink until the key was inserted. I still have no idea what the triggering factor(s) for that were.)

  • Auto-locking doors
  • Which brings me to another one in the same vein, doors that lock themselves, whether anyone is inside or not. Even if the car knows the keys are not on the driver but in fact in the ignition with the engine running. My uncle had this happen on one memorable occasion with a Buick Skylark. We were meeting up for a nice family-reunion dinner at this lodge, so he pulls up right in front and gets out to help my grandma inside, leaving the engine idling because he’ll only be a minute. The moment all doors were shut, however, the car locked itself. There he is with a running car stranded in the fire lane. At that moment the vehicle was destined for a date with wirecutters to fix this design flaw, but not without a date with the locksmith first.

    (As an aside, compounding this idiotic misfeature is the trend toward manual lock buttons that slide all the way down into the door when locked–probably to make it harder to jigger open with a coathanger–but also making it difficult or impossible to exit the vehicle if the electrical system fails, the way it might during a fiery head-on or a close encounter with a body of water.)

    For my rental this week (and hopefully industry-wide), the schmarts folks have relented, at least somewhat: the doors only auto-locked once the vehicle exceeded about 15mph (albeit with the disappearing lock levers mentioned above). Perhaps some previous-gen autolock trapped keys and a baby in a car during a heatwave, resulting in a death while waiting for the locksmith and a subsequent lawsuit, ultimately sparing future motorists from this particular flavor of idiocy.

  • Semiautomatic shifters
  • This could take a bit of explaining. There once were two types of transmission: automatic and manual (stick). Now, for the BMW owners who will mostly use it for transporting groceries and kids to soccer practice, but still fancy themselves performance drivers (waiting to drop the hammer on that 17 year old in his mom’s minivan, boy did he have it coming), there are a few different variants of auto-manual hybrid. Some are a mostly-auto that can be “bumped” up and down for those times when one really needs to show the Audi next lane over who’s boss; at the other end of the spectrum are those that, most of the time, look and feel like a real stick shift. But if it doesn’t like the way you’re shifting, it will go ahead and do it for you. Many 6-speed manuals have some built-in nannyware to select the next gear for you, physically locking out the one you actually wanted. (Depending on speed, throttle position, engine temp and probably the phase of the moon, these will “skip-shift”, locking out 2nd and 3rd gear so you have to shift from 1st directly to 4th. Do a quick poke for skip-shift and the entire result set will consist of products, services and instructions on how to GET RID OF THIS STUPID FEATURE. That should tell you something.)

    (Note: Bureaucrats own most of the blame for this one, not auto manufacturers directly: per the Energy Tax Act of 1978, “performance” vehicles (lower city gas mileage than the average grocery-getter for equivalent weight) are often saddled with a Gas Guzzler tax, but adding a skip-shift feature lets them off the hook. Note this only applies to sportscars; light trucks (read: SUVs) are specifically excluded and can guzzle all they like penalty-free.)

  • “Smart” (timered) dome/headlights/radio
  • The #1 cause of a dead car battery is leaving the headlights or dome light on overnight. This is one of those mistakes most motorists make exactly once.

    The first place I saw timered “courtesy” lighting was my folks’ 93 Nissan minivan. Upon exiting the vehicle, rather than turn off once all the doors shut, the interior lights stay full-on for a preprogrammed 15 seconds, then perform a slow and dramatic fade-out as if for Act 1 at the Dashboard Orpheum. Or not, depending on the positions of two independent 3-way switches for the front and rear dome lights.

    By now (see previous examples), you’ve learned to distrust all these “smart” behaviors as cases of defective by design, behaving as they do, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another, with seemingly no rhyme or reason. So when you turn off the headlights but they don’t shut off, or you take the keys out but the radio stays on (shutting off only the moment all doors are closed again, like an acoustic analogue of the refrigerator light), or you close and lock it only to notice that the interior lights are still on, this does not exactly instill confidence (rather, visions of jumper cables might start dancing in your head). So the driver accustomed to stupid smarts feels obligated to watch and wait to make sure that all the lights and gizmos actually do turn off after the manufacturer’s various courtesy timers for each gizmo expire.

But for shit drivers… the SMART feature I want:
You know how for obnoxious jerks, AIM has a warn button? Cars should have a paintball button.


2 Responses to “Cars with Stupid Smarts”

  1. Seth says:

    My auto-locking doors can be reprogrammed to unset this feature and my manual actually had that section heavily highlighted. Apparently the previous owner felt similarly.

    Also the car alarm bit me in the ass in Hawaii. I accidentally tucked the key fob in my trunks. Turns out key fobs are not wild fans of the Pacific Ocean. When I returned to the car, which was studiously locked with the alarm armed, I quickly assessed that the newly electrolyte-enhanced key fob didn’t work and inserted the key. Honk! Honk! Honk! Of course someone is trying to steal the car with a valid key.

  2. Jeff says:

    you have to be over the age of 40 to be upset about such features. you are the only person i have ever heard of who cant figure out that the one touch down windows only go down all the way if you hit it hard. a soft tap will not make it go down all the way. on the key fob note… you need a key fob to dissable the alarm that YOU armed with the key fob when you left the vehicle. if you dont want to use the key fob when returning, dont use it when leaving. and i dont think you should be in control of a paintball gun while driving. simple features included with your vehicle are obviously to complicated in the first place.

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