I may be overly cautious when it comes to new car technology, but here’s why I prefer driving old model beaters that aren’t entirely powered by software.
A friend of mine was posting about his brand new car in our group chat. He boasted it has all of the modern gadgets, automation, and safety features you’d expect from an entry-level luxury sedan. The chat erupted with comments on the new makes and models my friends were planning to buy, so I chimed in to say I’d prefer to drive my almost fifteen year old Honda Civic until it can’t run anymore. My comment killed the conversation. What a wet blanket.
I realised I was the only one in the chat who prefers low tech cars and actively avoids cars that are entirely reliant on code.
When I upgraded my flip phone to a touchscreen phone many years ago, I wondered if touchscreens were just a fad and figured we’d eventually return to physical buttons. In hindsight, touchscreen interfaces are obviously incredibly powerful and will be used for the foreseeable future, despite well-known usability issues like fat finger error.
A road safety study conducted in the UK a few years ago found that drivers operating cars that use touchscreens for functions like directions and climate control are 53 to 57 per cent slower reacting to external stimuli than those without the tech. In some cases the response time was slower than drivers at the legal alcohol limit.
When it comes to operating a high-speed couch on wheels, I prefer knobs, buttons, dials, wheels, and switches with a convincing, mechanical, tactile response to navigate the world. If I turn on the ignition, I want the satisfaction of pushing the key in. If I want to turn my air-con up, I want to wrap my hand around a dial. And if I have to brake suddenly, I trust my instincts to slam the pedal and come to a halt.
I don’t want to be poking and tapping a mostly unresponsive interface when I need to make a swift decision that risks my comfort or safety.
Starting my career as a developer, I know software is prone to errors. Some of the proprietary software I’ve unfortunately had to contribute to is held together with good will and luck despite the team’s best efforts, and the slightest server-side change is able to bring it all crashing down. This is why good QA analysts are worth their weight in gold, as software needs to be rigorously tested before being released to the public.
What if a damaging software bug is unaccounted for and makes it into a release? What if a defect results in a product being recalled? It happens.
High tech cars can even be hacked, allowing users to change tire pressure, disable brakes, install malware, and access your smartphone. In January 2022, a teenage white-hat hacker took control of 20 Tesla vehicles in 10 different countries through a bug in third-party software that let him remotely turn on the ignition and activate the internal car camera.
Low tech cars are proven to be more reliable than newer models. International customer advocacy Consumer Reports found that many new models with technologically advanced and complex transmissions continue to be unreliable for users.
Next to reliability issues, new cars are becoming unaffordable. The auto sales industry is moving towards Netflix-style subscription models for car software, with manufacturers like Toyota, BMW, Audi, General Motors, and Porsche already looking to adopt the strategy. These predatory, lock-in contracts will drastically increase the long term costs of owning software-driven cars with negligible benefits for users.
In addition to new subscription models, there has also been a global chip manufacturing shortage driving up the cost of all late model cars since the beginning of the pandemic.
Like many people, I spend my waking days and nights looking at screens. The very little time I spend in a car gives me a break from computerised screens and lets me disconnect from the internet.
I also actively try to avoid a car-centric lifestyle by living within walking distance of public amenities, shops, train lines, and bus routes. By limiting my reliance on cars, I reduce my carbon footprint, save money, exercise more, and driving just becomes something novel I do every now and then. If I lived in a sprawling suburb, I’d be entirely dependent on cars and more interested in consumer car culture.
Cities must urge urban planners and architects to reinforce pedestrianism as an integrated city policy to develop lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. It is equally urgent to strengthen the social function of city space as a meeting place that contributes toward the aims of social sustainability and an open and democratic society.
— Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer
I realise I sound like a grumpy old man telling you to get your software-powered car off my lawn, but I’m still fascinated by the future of technology and how users experience it. I’m just personally reluctant to adopt any new auto technology when I can stick with old tech that gets me from point A to point B just fine.