The Nanny Car - Do We Really Need It?

Last week I went to the Western Automotive Journalists meeting at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco. We had two speakers talking, more or less, about nanny cars (you know cars with all those warning systems to keep us from doing the dumb things so many of us do), Dan McGehee and Alex Epstein. McGehee is the Director of Transportation and Safety Research with the University of Iowa and Epstein is with the National Safety Council.

I vacillate between admiring the nanny systems and hating them. They drive me nuts with their beeps and "LOOK OUT" graphics. But I realize that there are many who really, really need to be told they are too close to the car in front of them. 

It seems to me that by admitting we need all these driver correction systems we have given up all hope of making better drivers. It has always been obvious that the various states do not really weed out bad drivers. I can speak to California a little and I know for a fact that potential drivers who cannot pass the rather basic DMV road test are often given a pass by managers who can't handle complaining parents. So instead of tightening driving standards we get nanny systems.

My main complaint with many of these systems is they are too intrusive and too sensitive. Take Lane Departure Warning systems. On paper they sound great - a system that warns you if you stray out of your lane. I've driven a fair number of cars with some type of lane departure system and they all tend to tug on the steering if they think you are leaving your lane. Even if you aren't.

I drive on Interstate 580 a few times a week. A few miles of the west bound lanes heading up the Altamont Pass are falling apart. The lanes have cracks that run parallel to the lanes. When I tried to move just off center to avoid the worst parts some systems try to nudge me back towards the center of the lane where it is the bumpiest. It is a pain to fight the car so I can stay out of the worst part of the road.

Coming the other way, westward, 580 turns into 205. It is three lanes in each direction. Right after one exit an on-ramp becomes the exit lane for my exit. I turn on my signal and get in this lane. The Lane Departure system thinks I have just moved over on lane. When I start to exit I don't use my signal because I am not turning; my lane exits (most of these systems temporarily turn off when the turn signals are being used) and the system tries to steer me back towards the highway.

Another seemingly good system is the systems that warn you when another vehicle is beside you, often in your blind spot. All of them have some light, often in the side view mirrors that light up when there is a vehicle in your blind spot or there about. That's fine. But the alarms can be jarring and intrusive. I don't need to be startled. And when a highway is under construction and the lanes are narrow some of these systems are on all the time because every vehicle is just too close. Thanks.

Then we have the automatic braking systems. Another good idea. I just wish there was some standardization in the systems. I've driven some cars that will come to a complete stop all alone and others that slow to maybe 5 mph and then the system shuts off. I guess if you owned the car you'd get used to its system.

I just wish these systems weren't needed, that all drivers were more aware. I know it isn't going to happen. People are going to continue to talk and text, shave, put on their makeup, pick their nose, read the paper, play air guitar and so many other things instead of concentrating on the task at hand - driving. I've seen it all on our roads - heck I even saw a porn flick being made in a limo once on I80.

I dream that the police will do their job and pull over every ignorant, inattentive driver and that the courts will suspend their licenses. But that's a dream. The cops and courts are overworked and understaffed.

So I guess I'll have to live with all these nanny systems on new cars. I still have my older cars to enjoy until I am not capable to drive. 


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