The role of the critic has long been ridiculed and lambasted for all the obvious reasons – so few of those who chose to comment on anything motorized could ever produce something approaching the quality of that which they were criticizing. The motor car is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon – at its most flamboyant the modern motor car is an amalgam of can-bus, titanium hybridity whose sophistication suggests it should be placed on a plinth and worshipped as a symbol of human excellence.
But this cleverness often sits uneasily with the unfortunate reality of the motor car – it actually has to be a usable machine to be of any use. The car is just entering era of fundamental change so profound that it might well emerge with another name, and this naturally leads to the emergence of new technologies. New ways of doing existing things and, well, just new things altogether. This is a gradual process though, and it is released by degrees, and often in the form of peripheral electronic aids.
I find these new widgets truly fascinating, but they also concern me. The people that forge these changes are so mind-scramblingly intelligent that I derive a great sense of reassurance the future of this thing I love is in safe hands. But just occasionally I wonder if each large-forehead might by way of a counterpoint, need a knuckle-dragger lurking behind them to assess the real-world results of their brain-power.
To which end, I give you the blind-spot warning system. I was confidently relying on one of these radar-driven marvels recently when I nearly drove into the side of another car. Moderately concerned, I used it again, this time leaving nothing to chance – and this extra investigation revealed that the Jaguar blind-spot assist system works well in most circumstances, except when asked to identify a blind-spot. This strikes me as being a strange use of technology.
You have to assume that Jaguar has tested its own blind-spot system, and is therefore aware that it has a few issues when confronted with the thing it is designed to counteract. Would it work better if the aforementioned luddite had been charged with seeing if he, or she, could make it work out in the field? Perhaps so.
The list of useless technologies is so long that I'll leave you to compile it. I know the good ship Jalopnik ran its own poll recently, and I agreed with most of the list. Night vision? I once tried driving on that alone, and nearly died. I can just about handle automatic wipers, but automatic main beam is up there with the quartic steering wheel for sheer idiocy. The LaFerrari's epitaph will read "Mind-bending; why the square wheel?"
Mercedes is often at the forefront of this push for ever-more ingenious driver assistance. I rather like its open-minded approach to the subject – it clearly just allows people with long lists of college qualifications to invent new ideas, then develops those ideas, foists them on new cars and awaits the response. The key here is that in the most part all of Merc's tech works when it is launched – the widgets do what they say on the tin. It just takes time to decipher what, if anything exactly, they add to the business of driving a car.
For instance – I used to think its complicated driver fatigue software was largely useless until I found myself at the wheel after not sleeping for far too long, and the dashboard of the E-Class basically told me to stop and stop being an idiot. And stop. You only need the one warning to feel the benefit.
What the brands will never admit is that the need to offer something new is mostly marketing driven, and therefore places an ominous burden on those clever people.
Yesterday I was driving a Mercedes S63 AMG coupe. In so many ways it feels like a glimpse into the future, but it is fitted with a suspension setting that actually tips the car into corners. This is quite the most bizarre sensation and, were it to be fitted to a more nimble machine I might just understand why it was there. But on a 2200 kg plutocratic, comfort-intended-super-coop? Nope, me neither. It's a bit like the 'Sport' button on most cars – you press it once, affect a quizzical glance at your passenger, and then never press it again. The S63 coupe is mighty, but it doesn't need to tip into corners.
There does appear to be something of a trend with these peripheral technology products – they almost always don't work when they are chassis-based. You can give me the most intelligent active or reactive chassis festooned with adaptive dampers and springs made from a unicorn's rib-cage and in return I will let you drive a 1999 BMW 528i Sport, running 16in rims and sports suspension and it will be better than the newfangled thing.
Technology in the field of chassis development serves one of three purposes: a marketing activity, the attempted fight against the incursion of EVER BIGGER RIMS and the need for more buttons in the cabin. Supplant the sport, dynamic, super-dooper chassis button in any car with the phrase 'makes everything shitter' and you'll have a clearer understanding of what will actually happen when you push it.
Other fields are more successful. Well, I appear to be alone in thinking they are anyway. BMW has met huge criticism for the way it has moved to turbocharging and added 'fake' noise to the process, but I like the way the new M3 sounds. Really, I do. I suppose noise is subjective anyway, and over here in the UK loud performance cars are about as popular as politicians, so a little less exterior 'zorst shout combined with some faked intake wheeze is good beer for me. The gradual silencing of the sports car to the outside world will be the next phase, so we'd better get used to it.
Quite often the very best technology offers such a paradigm shift from the conventions of the motor car that it actually forces us to reconsider our relationship with that four-wheeled-friend. The BMW i8 is just that machine. When I first drove it last year it immediately struck me that it would be pointless to try and compare it any other conventional sports car. Its technology was that rare strain; it felt like it had been defined by the largest foreheads imaginable, and then brutally deconstructed by savages much closer to my level of behavior, to the point that it genuinely worked. It was NASA-grade science optimized for the Starbucks generation.
The i8 doesn't force you into a new form of driving, it quietly coaxes you – like a great teacher it questions whether what you were doing before was actually as good as you thought. The i8 is the happy face of technology for the sake of improvement. And the blind-spot thing works damn well, too.
Illustration Sam Woolley