KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 10 — I’ve always held the firm belief that cars these days are far more complicated than they absolutely need to be. Multi-mode gearboxes. Multi-mode suspension. On-board Internet. I mean seriously, driving should be an event of its own. It shouldn’t need side-shows of techno-wizardry to keep it interesting.
A perfect example – my trusty 525i has a two-mode adaptive automatic transmission with steptronic sequential shifting.
Number of times I’ve used the “Sport” mode since I’ve bought this car = once.
Number of times I’ve shifted gears manually using the Steptronic feature = once.
That’s once, per feature, in the entire two years that I’ve owned the machine.
Another example – a friend of mine runs a Range Rover Vogue as a daily drive, thanks to a generous company car allowance. This car has all the bells and whistles from satellite navigation to hard disk entertainment and multi-mode air suspension.
Number of times he’s had to use the satellite navigation system = none (he hasn’t even figured out how to input a destination on the thing, mind you).
Number of times he’s fiddled with the air-suspension settings = none.
The fact of the matter is this – often times the gadgets that impress us most on the showroom floor are the gadgets that get the least use during the course of a car’s lifetime. Some are even downright pointless.
Internet in the car. Who in the world needs THAT?
TVs and DVD players. Shouldn’t your eyes be on the ROAD, buddy?
My latest pet peeve automotive gadget, though, is something far more insidious.
The electronic parking brake.
If you’re even vaguely a fan of the automotive arts, you’ll come to realise that in the past five years or so, the handbrake lever, as we have all come to know and love, has all but vanished from the cabins of modern luxury cars, replaced by a teeny-tiny switch on the dash or on the centre console.
Every Audi I’ve ever sat in, bar the diminutive A1, has had one of these switches in place of a proper handbrake lever.
The only BMWs left with a traditional parking brake lever is the 1 and 3 series. Every other car in Munich’s stable has gone electronic.
The question I ask at this point is this: what in the world was wrong with the parking brake lever in the first place? How an engineer, no doubt stashed away in the technical think-tank of a German marque, determined that pulling a lever upwards to engage a parking brake was too much hard work, will forever escape me.
It certainly looks fancy, having a switch instead of a lever. It’s almost certain to win some ooh’s and ah’s on the showroom floor. And the ladies will no doubt love the fact that one needn’t have gym-fit arms to keep the car stationary when parked.
But seriously, have we, as drivers and perhaps more importantly, as a species, fallen to a point where pulling on a lever seems too hard a task? Why have engineers found a need to fix something that has worked flawlessly for over a hundred years of motoring history?
Mercedes, of all companies, provided a perfect case study of why one should rarely ever mess with something that aint’ broke.
When the W211 E-Class was launched, Mercedes removed manual control from the braking system and reverted to an entirely brake-by-wire electronic system – the Sensotronic. This system was meant to reduce braking effort, improve braking performance especially in the wet, and to intelligently distribute braking force to all four wheels.
This, as you would expect, looked GREAT in brochures, and gave Mercedes an edge when flogging their cars to the unsuspecting public, who lapped it all up in the name of advancement. Touted as the “next big thing” in car technology, this system quite literally, fell flat on its face.
En masse failure of the all-electronic Sensotronic system rendered the brakes on these cars all but unreliable. By 2004, Mercedes was forced to recall 680,000 E-Classes with the Sensotronic system. The S-class and SL roadsters quickly followed suit, taking the recall tally up to just under two million cars. Little surprise then, that when the W211’s successor – the W212 – was launched, Sensotronic was nowhere to be seen.
I reckon the electronic parking brake is a bit like the Sensotronic system. Looks great on brochures. Impresses on the showroom floor. Gives some amount of boasting rights when you engage in debates with your mates about whose car is more “canggih.” But when you sit down and allow the euphoria of seeing new-fangled technology fade away, you’d more often than not come to realise that it’s a piece of automotive wizardry you didn’t really need.
In an age where everything from the accelerator pedal to the transmission control in our cars is run by an electronic brain, I think maintaining some semblance of manual control over our cars is more than slightly desirable -- especially bits that slow the car down and/or bring it to a halt and keep it there.
Nothing drove home this fact more obviously then when a mate’s car suffered a flat battery recently. It was an automatic, so push starting wasn’t an option. I didn’t have any jumper cables with me so jump-starting wasn’t an option either. We thus ended up calling the friendly AAM to arrange for a tow to get the stricken luxo-barge to the nearest dealer for a fix.
When the tow truck arrived, we quickly realised the gadgets that made him spend almost half a million on the car were quite literally, preventing him from getting his car out of the parking garage.
Firstly, it had keyless entry. Without power, there was simply no way to get into the car. Until I scoured YouTube for a video I remember watching about manually overriding keyless entry systems. As it turns out, we had to pry the key fob open and fish the hidden metal key inside to open the doors.
Once inside, we discovered another problem. The car had a shift-by-wire gearshift mechanism. Without power or a solid mechanical link between gear knob and gear box, there was simply no way to free the car from Park. And to make matters worse, it had one of those infernal electronic parking brakes. Without power, the parking brake kept the car’s rear wheels resolutely locked, rendering the car all but immobile.
With the car firmly and positively stuck by account of its electronic nannies, the AAM guy was pretty much helpless to assist. The peculiar angle at which the car was parked meant his tow truck simply could not get at the front wheels to hitch up the towing mechanism. We had no choice but to leave the car in the parking garage overnight and pray we could persuade the main dealer to send technicians to the crime scene on a Sunday.
As my buddy moaned and groaned about his predicament and caught a taxi home, I got into my trusty 525i, put a good ol’ key into a good ol’ ignition slot, took the good ol’ mechanical gear selector from Park to Drive, released its manual parking brake and drove off with nary a hitch.
The simplest solutions, often times, is the best. So please, Mr Engineer, stop putting electronics where electronics weren’t ever required in the first place.