KUALA LUMPUR, March 29 — Had the opportunity to pilot a good ol’ friend’s BMW just the other day. Alan and I were meeting up for a quick lunch, so he swung by my office to pick me up and offered me a spin in his brand-spanking new BMW 750iL. Well, almost brand-spanking new anyway, since the car was pre-owned (read: used).
Not that it mattered, since at four years old, the car still had that “new-car” feeling. Everything was tightly screwed together — as it should be at this price-point. Nothing squeaked, rattled or threatened to fall off after a few rounds around the block. As I’ve always said, and I’ll say it again — no one builds cars like the Germans. They built the Bismarck after all. Building something on four wheels after that behemoth of the seas is a comparative walk in the park for a country so steeped in engineering competence.
But I digress. Back to the car.
Alan’s car, much to the disappointment of the boys at Auto Bavaria, Ingress and Quill, is a grey import. Or a “parallel import”, if we’re being politically correct. A peculiar situation where a car is brought into the country by means other than a maker’s authorised dealers. And being one of the top-of-the-line models in the UK, where it was first registered, it was LOADED to the gun-walls with kit.
Heated and cooled power-adjusted seats with massage functions. Rear entertainment screens. Electrically-operated sunblinds on every conceivable window. Xenon headlamps. Power-operated sunroof. Keyless entry. Satellite navigation. Adaptive cruise control. Internet access. And perhaps the most interesting bit — night vision. Q would have been proud of this machine.
But as impressed as I was at this point, it got me thinking. Have car makers literally gone overboard with the kit count?
There used to be a time when cars were simple things. It had an engine up in front, a gearbox to get the power to the rear wheels. It had seats in the middle with windows all around and a boot space at the rear. Windows had cranks you spun around to raise or lower the glass and the only luxury you could have was air conditioning — which, more often than not, got installed by the dealer rather than at the factory, was rudimentarily hung from below the dash and blew cold air at your knee. Or your belly. But never ever at your face.
These days though cars are seemingly an entirely different kettle of fish.
It’s often said that your typical modern family hatchback has more computing power than the first lunar lander that put man on the moon. Having seen my fair share of spec sheets, I have absolutely no reason to doubt that. But I’ve started to ask myself this question: are car makers starting to lose their marbles when it comes to the specifications of their products?
Take Alan’s bimmer, for example. It has Internet access. In a car. I mean, what could you honestly do with THAT while driving? Update your Twitter account with a picture of the man you just mowed down while you were watching YouTube on the fast lane of the Federal Highway?
Then there’s the adaptive cruise control. You select a pre-set speed, followed by what you deem to be a comfortable tracking distance from the car in front. For as long as there are no obstructions, the car will cruise all day at your selected speed. But the moment there’s another vehicle in front of you, the car will slow to maintain your pre-set tracking distance from the offending slow coach in front of you. Convenient. But try using that on our North-South Expressway. You’re bound to end up constantly tracking delivery vans hogging the fast lane, doing no more than 90km/h.
Which brings me to the 750’s pièce de résistance — its night vision. This fascinating bit of equipment uses heat cameras in the front of the car to detect heat signatures of anything with a semblance of a heartbeat, and projects the images onto the car’s central screen. But these images aren’t exactly in full technicolour, mind. It’s just ghostly images against a pitch black background. Which is kinda freaky, if I’m being completely honest.
But it brings to light two issues:
To gain any benefit from the system, you’ll have to constantly glance at the central screen to look for ghostly shadows. And this, I suspect, will inevitably result in some tech geek — with a fat wallet undoubtedly — barrelling down the road at 110km/h, looking at his dashboard screen instead of at the road ahead. This is, as you’d imagine, just ever so slightly troubling.
Rather more importantly though — if someone is THAT incapable of seeing in the dark so as to require night vision, I reckon one should really reconsider the act of taking the wheel of thousands of kilogrammes worth of steel, leather and rubber and bombing the thing down country roads.
If you think that kit overload is a situation unique to flagship automobiles, think again. More reasonably priced cars are starting to show signs of being similarly afflicted with this peculiar form of feature overload.
Proton’s highly-anticipated Persona replacement, the P3-21A, is hotly rumoured to come bundled with in-car Wi-Fi, courtesy of YTL’s YES. In Europe at least, a humble VW can be specced with Adaptive Cruise Control. And night vision is already being offered on the utilitarian Toyota Land Cruiser in Japan.
So have cars literally gone overboard with kit? I’ll let you be the judge of that. Just remember your answer the next time you see a driver barrelling down the highway with his eyes firmly affixed on his Facebook status update.