Too much of a good thing?

Date:19 October 2012 Author: Anthony Doman

Lane keeping aid. Park assist. Road sign information. Cross traffic assist. Driver alert control. Enhanced blind spot information system. Distance alert. Grumpy old man alarm.

You could get all of these with the Volvo V40 at the car’s local launch last week. Drowning out the rest, in our car at least, was the rising whine of the Grumpy Old Man Alarm (for the record, this is comes standard in males of a certain vintage).  The App generation probably love this kind of thing, I bleated from the back seat as my grey-bearded companions up front struggled to get to grips with the menu on the central display. Their reply was unprintable.

Clearly the proliferation of driver aids in cars, their apparent complexity, and their propensity to announce themselves by means of assorted flashing graphics, lights, beeps, ding-dongs and even bodily taking over control of the car, is itself causing a degree of alarm. Before I am accused of Volvo-bashing, let me set the record straight. Everybody is doing it. Even the humblest econohatch these days seems to have at least a gadget that warns you that you are about to hit something while reversing, if you couldn’t be bothered to look where you are going, that is.

Part of the problem for the GOM is that, increasingly, the way to set or gain access to much of this technology is via a video display using a menu system. This procedure is uncomfortably reminiscent of having to deal with a PC, a device that as we know has been known to induce the occasional wobbly in even well-adjusted humans.

I’m well aware that driving a car on today’s crowded roads involves so much information processing that it’s near impossible to stay up to speed, literally and figuratively. That’s true even if you’re not using your cellphone or doing your makeup.

In May, at the international launch of the V40 in Italy, I put my concerns to the Volvo people. “Oh no,” they said. “Ultimately, the driver remains in control.”

I persisted. “What’s the likelihood of information overload?”

Not to worry, they said soothingly. When your car’s systems detect – by monitoring your driving behavior – that you are not dealing appropriately with the volume of information being generated, they start filtering out non-essential material and ensure that only the really important stuff is delivered to your inbox, in a manner of speaking.

The locals were rather more blunt.

“You can switch it off.”

Er… but that does seem to be defeating the object of having this technology in the first place.

I love the idea that technology is able to do marvellous things like distinguish between a meerkat and a 22-wheeler, assess the potential danger thereof, sound the alarm and apply steering and brakes appropriately, all without driver intervention. But are we heading towards the automotive nanny state? At what point does the driver become purely another component in the vehicle control chain?



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