Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood

Two months back I acquired a new personal ride. My new SUV has as many advanced safety features as I could get, which was one of my key requirements. It’s only in the last couple of years that such tools — like active cruise control — have been offered on anything but very high-end light vehicles that ordinary mortals like me couldn’t afford. So I was excited.

I’ve been writing about such things in the trucking context for years now, so I wanted to have some of this gizmology to play with every day, not just occasionally on a test track in a truck. I also wanted to know — just how useful is this stuff?

I now have active cruise, forward-collision mitigation, blind-spot alerts, cameras pointing this way and that, everything but lane guidance. It’s been an enlightening experience, and it’s given me a new perspective on the high-tech truck from a driver’s perspective.

Every time I write something positive about electronic nanny aids like stability control, I hear from drivers and get various levels of outrage in return. We’re pros, they say, we’ve got the skills required, we don’t need the help.

They’re wrong, I believe, because no human can react as quickly as a computer, nor can any of us comprehend a situation as quickly as the growing number of sensors on our vehicles, big and small. Nor as accurately.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all this technology is frustration-free.

It’s hard to buy a car without electronic stability control nowadays, and I wouldn’t drive a truck without it.

But what about active cruise control? Well, it works, but it takes a lot of getting used to. I’m not there yet. I set the gap I want to maintain between myself and any vehicle in front of me, set the speed I want to drive, and off I go. Trouble is, if the speed differential is slight, if I’m going only 3-4 mph faster than the vehicle in front, the electro-trickery slows me down imperceptibly and the guy I just passed is suddenly on my tail – and annoyed. I hate drivers who can’t maintain a constant speed, but suddenly I’m one of the offenders.

My new SUV also came with a totally digital dash, which is in fact a totally awful dash. If ever there was a source of distraction on the road, this is it. I’m forced to push buttons on the steering wheel or the main touchpad – after first finding them — to see the tach. But if I have the tach showing I can’t also display my real-time fuel economy. Etc., etc. It’s a mess, and one of the worst examples of automotive design I’ve ever come across.

If I want to change the radio station or switch to a CD I have to take my eyes off the road and fool with that big touchpad, first selecting “entertainment” and then trying to find whatever it is I want on a screen full of choices — and finger smudges.

Yes, there are voice commands I could employ, but that demands very particular phrasing and, frankly, I don’t have the patience to figure it out.

I don’t think digital dashboards on trucks are quite this bad, but I’d love to hear about your experience with them.

I’d also like to know what was wrong with good old rotary dials and switches.