You know what’s a shitty truth about reality? It’s that the old story about that magic monkey’s paw was far more accurate than we’d like to believe. Sure, there’s no bewitched, severed primate hand granting wishes, but the deeper truth, that everything you think is good can have unforeseen consequences, comes up all the damn time. A perfect example of this has to do with modern driver assist systems in cars.
Driver assist systems — things like lane-keeping, emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and so on, up to the Level 2-type semi-autonomous systems of Tesla’s Autopilot, for example—are absolutely helpful technical developments and contribute to driving becoming safer and safer, but there’s a cost.
The cost is directly related to what these systems do best, which is compensate for poor driving. Everything these systems do is designed to fill in the holes where human drivers may fail, almost exclusively from not paying attention to the task of driving.
There’s sort of an unfortunate cycle here—cars with systems that can compensate for an inattentive driver are also simultaneously enabling inattentive drivers because these systems can help to mitigate the consequences of shitty driving.
And, since safety is a factor that sells cars, we’re starting to see carmakers advertising driver assist systems more aggressively, and in different ways than previously.
For example, this 2019 Subaru commercial that focuses on the emergency automatic braking system sets up a situation where it’s a momentary lapse of attention by a driver otherwise seemingly alert to the business of driving his Subaru:
Whew, okay, that was a close one! The situation here seems understandable, and the commercial takes a moment to let the driver reflect on the potential horror of what could happen. Sure, it’s a bit of fear-mongering, but it’s not an unrealistic situation, and it drives home the value of the assist system, which is cast in the light of an emergency failsafe.
Now let’s look at this ad for the 2020 Hyundai Kona:
This is a very different treatment of this same sort of concept. The driver here is shown engaging in some questionable — screw it, why am I sugarcoating this — being an idiot while driving.
This isn’t a momentary glance at your kid in the back, they’re showing a driver leaning into a picture with friends with their attention away from the road as they speed down a highway for a good three to five seconds or so at least.
Then, when the magic lady in the pantsuit shows up with her stop-time bell or whatever the hell is going on there, the message is not, hey, watch where you’re fucking driving, but rather is, well, if you don’t pay attention and swerve out of your lane into another car’s lane, don’t worry! Your Kona will beep at you!
It’s not even like the car will correct itself; it’ll just warn you that, hey, you’re doing something stupid and could kill us all, so, um, beep beep beep!
The whole message here is that you don’t really have to drive that carefully, because the car will get your back before things get too bad. This is not a good message to send.
It’s also the same message as this Volvo commercial tells, in a different way:
Okay, so here we see some harried new parents dealing with the considerable challenges of raising twins. They’re exhausted and at their limit; I’ve had a baby, I know how it goes. All parents do.
In the ad there, the mom is making a late-night diaper run (pretty far away, it seems—these people need to move out of the sticks) and is so tired she nods off, and almost veers into an oncoming truck, when the Volvo’s lane-keeping system steps in and effectively saves her life.
Now here’s the problem: this is an entirely understandable situation, and driver-assist systems likely could help, just like this shows. At the same time, though, it’s also putting forth the message that, hey, even if you feel too tired to comfortably drive, don’t really worry, because this Volvo might just be able to save your ass.
Now, once we go down this road, what’s the real difference between what we just saw here and a commercial that shows a guy downing three shots of Captain Morgan’s extra-piratey spiced rum and two beers with his buddies and then getting in his new Volvo to head home and, being a bit buzzed, almost sideswiping a bus until his Volvo Supermans in to make everything okay?
It’s not really different, because the message is the same: you can fuck up at driving, and the car will take care of it.
Now, on one level, this is great; cars should be as forgiving as possible of everything. And, to one way of thinking, even if we know you shouldn’t drive while really tired or drunk or be taking selfies at the wheel, we also know that people do this, all the damn time, so why not just accept it and try to compensate?
I can see the argument for that. But at the same time, this is a terrible, dangerous, and unrealistic way to sell cars. These are emergency systems, ones to be employed as a last resort, and these commercials are starting to tout them as normal features to just be used and enjoyed, like heated seats or a nav system.
No matter what your car can do to help you out of a bad decision, the suggestion that maybe it’s okay to make such bad decisions is simply not the message that needs to be sent.
It’s worth noting that none of these commercials really put these kinds of near-misses in context. You’ll notice that all of them show the cars in question in weird near-isolation—it’s just the errant car and the dangerous-consequence car, on deserted stretches of highway.
There’s no other cars or people on the road because in our more populated and chaotic reality, a car almost veering into another car sends cascades of reaction and panic throughout all the surrounding vehicles, which could cause other secondary wrecks or incidents.
These systems are by no means perfect, either, and pushing a narrative of reliance on them is actively harmful. Driver-assist systems are already eroding driving skills, according to a study from the University of Michigan, as they compensate for more and more sloppy driving. Eventually, we will have produced a whole set of drivers who only feel comfortable driving cars with a full set of these features.
Fundamentally, advertising emergency driver-fuckup-compensation systems as car features that drivers can avail themselves to as a way to avoid having to really consider consequences is irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
These ads set a bad precedent, and I’d encourage automakers to stop doing it.
If they don’t I can turn this blog right around and take them all home. Just try me.