Minding my own business on my way to gym, the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz 450GLE I was driving ($96,930 as tested) decided that I was wandering too far and abruptly jerked me back into the center of the lane. It was lucky I’d already had my coffee, because it was jarring to say the least.
That's just one system on the car--with the $2,250 driver assistance package plus, it also offered active distance assist, active steering assist, emergency stop assist, active speed limit assist, active traffic sign assist, active blind spot assist, rear-end collision protection and stop-and-go assist.
This Benz and most of the cars I drive these days bristle with advanced safety apparatus, much of it tuned to react—sometimes overreact—when the driver does something dumb. Cars will: pre-tension the seat belt and emergency brake the car when an accident is coming up, check for rear obstacles, see into your blind spot, warn of lane departure (or actively resist it), park for you, remind you of speed limits with heads-up display, keep an eye out for pedestrians, animals and cyclists, shake your seat belt when you’re getting too close to the end of your parking spot, warn of cars alongside with lights in the outside mirrors, and check to see if you’re getting drowsy—suggesting coffee as a solution.
Traction control is hard at work keeping you on the road, no matter what stupid Mario Andretti move you make. ABS guards against skidding and locking brakes.
Wow, that’s a lot. And sometimes too much, because some cars are equipped with so many individual systems that you can’t tell which one is signaling you about what. Don't get me wrong, I fully support the new safety technology. But the car is always beeping about something, and it's not always clear what message it's sending. It’s kind of annoying, and I suspect owners are turning some of these systems off. I mean, constant lane departure warnings will drive you nuts.
Remember automatic seatbelts? Designed to combat the legions of Americans who seemed to want to die in a crash, they rumbled along on a track and encircled the driver. What’s more, the car wouldn’t start unless the belt was buckled. Introduced in the late 1980s, they lasted only a few years. I understand the impulse to make Americans safer, but this was never going to work. Here’s a video that includes automatic belts in a list of 10 dumb safety ideas:
When I bought my old Saab, someone had disabled the seat belt chime by removing the relay. People are probably doing this left and right with modern safety system that can’t be otherwise turned off. I’m not condoning this behavior in any way; I'm simply recognizing that it exists (and perhaps admitting that I understand the impulse). I think that automakers should think these systems through more carefully and figure out how to implement them without annoying or confusing drivers. Maybe let people choose individual songs for each distinct function instead of undifferentiated beeps?
The irony of all this is that the tech is interim, just like those automatic seatbelts. Adaptive cruise control, so cool on the Cadillac CT6 I just tested, is outmoded by equipment on the same car—Super Cruise self-driving technology. The former just follows the car in front, but requires the driver to steer. The latter does it all for you (but only on the highway).
At the endpoint, cars won’t need to alert drivers because there won’t be any drivers. Maybe this is an unfortunate metaphor, but it’s like the Terminator’s Skynet—the machines will be in control. Volvo says the goal is cars that can’t and won’t crash. If we get there, we won’t need lane-keeping assist and automatic braking or, indeed, anything that beeps, shakes or lights up a warning lamp. And we can say goodbye to expensive, heavy stuff like passenger compartment cages, seatbelts, bumpers, safety glass, airbags, taillights (any exterior lights, for that matter) and turn signals.
Gone also will be traffic lights, crossing guards, crosswalks and road signs. We’re even looking at deep-sixing most parking lots—since cars (now parked 95 percent of the time) will be shared and constantly on the road picking up passengers.
Early electric cars had interiors that resembled living rooms on wheels, and—freed of driving—we could go back to something like that.
Enough daydreaming. I don’t know when that new world is coming, just that it is coming. For now, I'm doing my best to pay attention to the barrage of messages I’m getting, and despite the nuisance factor, I’m glad that automakers are putting advanced safety equipment in cars. Today’s drivers walk away from accidents that would have killed their parent. By the way, I reconnected the seatbelt buzzer in my Saab 900 convertible. I want to be warned to buckle up.