Does car tech really make us better drivers

When did modern cars take away all the skill in driving? We don’t drive technology, technology is now driving us.

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A few decades ago, when  fluffy dice was the coolest technology going around, most people couldn't have imagined half the technologies available in today’s cars – and let me tell you, I was a kid with a vivid imagination.

I still remember the earliest car I ever drove. It had a bench seat in the front covered in green leather, the gear stick sat on the side of the steering wheel and the radio had a thing they called a dial. It was a ‘tasteful’ khaki colour (or poo green), the roof was a white canvas, a lemonade-can was used to connect the exhaust pipe to the muffler and the bonnet was starting to rust on the left. It wasn’t your stereotypically beautiful car, but it still gave off a kind of charm. It was simple, tough, durable and it didn’t give in to any fancy-pants new technology. Years later, I still fondly reminisce about the years we had together.

The car I speak of was my grandfather’s Holden HQ, and I was about six when he sold it. Okay, so I didn’t actually drive it per se; I just got to steer it… okay, okay, I was holding the steering wheel… while the engine was off! In fact, since we’re being honest, my memories are far better served sitting in the middle of the bench seat eating Minties.

The memory of the Old Bomb came back to me recently while I was driving around Melbourne in a Volvo XC60. While the navigation told me to turn right, Adele poured her little heart out through my phone’s Bluetooth and the engine halted to a quiet stop thanks to the Volvo’s start/stop technology, I had a Nina Proudman-like flashback (Offspring fans, you with me?) that was so realistic, I could have sworn I saw the old HQ drive past.

I wondered how the HQ would feel if it were still alive today; would it be comparing itself to the newer upgrades, or would it own the vintage space.

When I think of the HQ and its home-made exhaust, I realise how far we’ve come in the car-techno stakes. Idle stop, adaptive cruise control, automatic high-beams, in-car internet, navigation systems… the list goes on and on.

Auto-technology appeared on my radar a few years ago when I borrowed a Jeep Grand Cherokee from a friend to drive from Melbourne to Adelaide. A 16-hour round trip is plenty of time to get acquainted with a car and its features. On this occasion, it was the adaptive cruise control (ACC) that really got my attention. For those who have never driven a car with ACC, it’s similar to normal cruise control only it adapts to the speed of the car in front of you. Basically, you push a button, control the wheel and let the car drive itself (almost). It was somewhat of a life-saver on the eight-hour drive but when it came to stopping at traffic lights, I got a daunting insight into the downsides of certain technologies. Two hours without peddle-use or having to worry about speed meant my brain had to jump into gear and tell my foot to press the brake to stop at lights. Cavemen say what?

Modern cars, these days, have more ‘gadgets’ than James Bond and it’s causing some inner conflict for me. Yeah, 007 always wins and he’s driven some pretty cool cars, even ones that can fly (or was that the Batmobile?), but for those who don’t spend their days fighting crime and turning damsels in distress into sexy sidekick heroes in bikinis, I’m not convinced the growing reliance on automotive technologies are a positive thing for the industry – or at least our driving skills. They leave us susceptible to a reliance on outside influences, as well as potentially fatal faults.

Sure, buttons on a steering wheel sound like a luxury, but if these technologies start taking away the skills and concentration of drivers, are we just leaving ourselves open to complacency? In 20-odd years of owning the HQ, my grandpa had one minor ding… with a shopping trolley in a supermarket car park! No adaptive cruise control, no reverse camera, no blind spot beep-beep-beepers. No complacency. Just skilful, attention-paying driving.

That’s not to say these technologies don’t have a place. I’m pro-advancement and know first-hand driving a car like the Volvo XC60 is much more comfortable than the Old Bomb. I think the new features and technologies are a good thing and certainly a step toward making our roads a safer place; who knows, maybe one day we will even be able to make an AMC Matador coupe fly (007 could make cars fly). But as for whether they make better drivers, I’m yet to see the proof.


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