In Praise of Dumb Cars

©. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Survey finds that drivers with a few "smart" features in their cars take a lot more risks.

While Level 5 totally autonomous vehicles are going through the classic Gartner trough of disillusionment right now, more and more Level 1 automation is getting into cars. Examples are the adaptive cruise control (ACC) that matches speed with the car in front of you, or the lane keeping assist (LKA) that monitors the lines and nudges you back into your lane. As they note on The Drive, "At Level 1, the driver still needs to maintain full situational awareness and control of the vehicle."

Level 2 is a little more sophisticated. It can do both ACC and LKA at the same time. According to the NHTSA, "the human driver MUST pay attention at all times and still perform the remainder of the driving."

state farm insurance graph

© State Farm Insurance

Unfortunately, a lot of people are not reading the small print there. According to a State Farm Insurance survey,

Americans who drive vehicles equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) or Lane Keeping Assist (LKA), both advanced driver assist features, admit to using their smart phones while driving at significantly higher rates than those without the latest tech... Forty-two percent of drivers with Lane Keeping Assist tech stated they “frequently” or “sometimes” use video chat while driving compared to 20 percent who engaged in the risky behavior without the advanced technology.

State Farm has a long list of recommendations about "how to be as smart as your smart car while you drive." I am not sure that this is an appropriate heading. These cars are not smart, and yet people are relying on them, doing all these things like texting, updating social media, checking mail and taking selfies. State Farm continues:

Half of all respondents also said they would be willing to take their eyes off the road for less than five seconds to focus on another task. All while driving on an open highway at 65 mph. At that speed, you can drive the length of a football field in 3.2 seconds. Anything can happen in 100 yards.

In praise of dumb cars

my miata

Lloyd Alter's Miata/CC BY 2.0

I have previously noted that my late, lamented 1990 Miata got it right. Thin hard seats, manual transmissions, less insulation to keep out noise, all help keep you focused. When I was driving it, "crunching those gears and looking under transport trucks, with my bum a foot off the ground and no airbags, I am seriously concentrating on the road."

But instead, the car companies keep turning cars into living rooms, and as in our houses and cities, making them smarter isn't making them any better or safer.