We've long derided appliancelike vehicles for being the wrong answer to the transportation problem. The recent Toyota recalls bring up an interesting question: If you remove the driver from the act of driving, what happens when something goes wrong?
Driving is supposed to be a sensory-based activity, one that utilizes sight, sound, smell and touch to accomplish a purposeful, and often entertaining, task. You watch the world around you, you listen to the sound of rubber meeting the road, you smell the aroma of hot brakes, and you feel how the car reacts as you traverse a corner. Once upon a time, using these senses, ordinary people could diagnose (and often fix) problems. If you didn't know how to fix something, you were still provided with the opportunity to notice an issue — machinery was transparent enough that you could at least say "Hey, something is wrong here," and take your car to someone who could fix it.
Over the course of the past few decades, however, our senses have been usurped by sensors In many cases, tasks that used to be performed by the driver are now accomplished by electronic sensors. You don't look for traffic in the next lane over because you have a lane departure warning system. You don't listen to your car's engine because your car listens for you — if something goes wrong, a light will come on and let you know. You don't even have to learn how to drive a car within the limits of its tires or suspension — electronic stability control takes care of that.
On a fundamental level, a lot of this is unavoidable. If you distill its purpose down, the car doesn't exist to make you happy or involve you in what it's doing; its purpose is to provide clean, safe transportation. Given that, technology creep is inevitable, and a lot of it is for the better — things like electronically controlled differentials and engine management systems that allow for streetable, sky-high horsepower are proof of that.
Still, we can't help thinking that something is wrong.
The problem comes when you dilute the man-machine connection. Toyota, more than any other company, is guilty of this. Even the company's CEO, Akio Toyoda, has acknowledged that excitement is lacking in their product lineup. Get in a new Toyota product like the Camry or Corolla and what impresses you most is the unobtrusiveness of the experience — you can drive 300 miles, climb out of the car, and forget that you were driving at all.
When you ask — whether intentionally or not — for a driver to shut down his or her senses, most people will comply. In essence, a Toyota Prius, with its feedback-free controls and slow-is-better mentality, offers you disconnected, on-off options: Stop. Go. Point. The car does everything else, and when something goes wrong, the driver's ability to respond is limited. A lack of choice prompts us to choose less often, which teaches us to think less behind the wheel, which means that we become dumbfounded when presented with simple problems.
Don't believe us? When the floor mats were to blame for creating fiery death situations, Toyota had to release a guide to drivers explaining what to do in the event one gets stuck under the accelerator. When did we start needing this kind of lowest-common-denominator instruction? And why has the act of turning off a car become so complicated? (In order to shut down a vehicle like the Toyota Venza, you have to push a button for three seconds, which also shuts down the power steering. Not exactly the type of instant response you want when you're heading face-first into an eighteen-wheeler.)
What are you supposed to do in that case? Easy: Shift the car into neutral, which preserves control and lets the stuck-throttle engine rev its little heart out with no ill effect. But that, too, is fraught with issues: Many modern cars have shift levers that don't offer an instantly apparent way to disengage the transmission, and few people become familiar with the function because it's rarely used. (I once saw two adults pull over a Mazda3 because it was in automanual mode and they were flummoxed because they didn't know how to shift it.)
And this whole issue with Steve Wozniak's Prius? We're fairly certain that he just doesn't understand how radar cruise control works — after all, it's a complex electronic device, and he's ONLY THE GUY WHO HELPED CREATE THE MODERN PC! The same goes for the Prius brake problems — if the reports are to be believed, we're talking about a one-second delay as the car switches over from regenerative braking to stopping. People can't deal with this? In an older car, it'd be a quirk, but according to the media, it's probably caused hundreds of accidents.
Let's repeat one thing: When it comes to beigeness and the fog of technological complexity, Toyota isn't the only culprit. Every mass-production car sold in America, from Prius to Porsche, uses complicated electronics and drive-by-wire systems; these things are necessary to comply with ever-growing government regulation and societal needs. The difference lies in the approach: The braking system on a 911 is designed to provide both feedback and capability, while the system in a Toyota Prius is aimed solely at regenerative efforts and making you feel like the distant captain of Ed Begley Jr.'s
Everyone wants to know if Toyota's issues can be traced to a software problem — a technical typo, in other words, and not an actual design defect. We think it can be. The modern beige vehicle has so removed the driver from the act of driving that it's rewritten the software in our skulls.