Gavin Green: why modern cars have too many nannying automatic features

Published: 02 November 2017

Got an old car and thinking of something new-fangled and shiny? If so, here’s a handy guide to some of the biggest new-car trends, gizmos and gadgets of the past 10 years. 

Crossovers These are SUVs that can’t go off-road. They are bigger, heavier, pricier (ie more profitable), more cumbersome, slower and thirstier than the hatchbacks on which they’re typically based. And usually no more capable or versatile.

Satellite navigation Once upon a time, every car had a dog-eared A-Z in its glovebox. Now it has a fingerprint-stained sat-nav in its facia. Sat-nav is amazing, the cleverest new gizmo of the past decade or so. But here’s the rub: you don’t need car sat-nav. Just use Google Maps on your smartphone or better still the free navigation app Waze. Buy a bracket and attach your iPhone to your windscreen, like the Uber and AdLee boys do. It’s cheaper than car sat-nav and can be updated wirelessly. 

Touchscreens Old cars have switches, knobs and buttons, all with a distinct feel. Once you’re familiar with your car’s controls you can use them without taking your eyes off the road. New cars, on the other hand, have giant screens in the middle of their facias that increasingly replace conventional switchgear. You always have to look at the touchscreen to use it and frequently have to scroll through time-consuming and eye-distracting menus. Despite the name, you can’t navigate through the different functions by feel. Touchscreens are addictive. Just as they turn pedestrians into zombies, so they obsess and distract drivers. 

Voice activation The car’s infotainment system does what you tell it. But it rarely works.

Infotainment Formerly known as a radio. If you’re used to a couple of knobs and a few buttons, you’ll find infotainment a dreadful ergonomic step backwards. Most infotainment systems are infuriatingly unintuitive and usually the worst designed part of any car. 

Bluetooth Wirelessly connects your smartphone to your car, so you can make hands-free calls and play music from your iPhone. Even if your call is totally hands-free, your concentration is on the call, not the road. The Department for Transport rightly tells you to turn off your smartphone when driving and put the damn thing away. In which case, for drivers, Bluetooth is useless.

Are modern cars too technically complex?

Auto wipers They sense rain and turn on automatically. Sometimes. Designed for drivers who haven’t noticed it’s raining – perhaps they’re looking at their touchscreens? – or who find it too challenging to turn a stalk.

Smart keys or Keyless Go You don’t need to put your key in the ignition to start the engine. You simply push a starter button. OK, but you still need a ‘key’ of some sort. That will normally rattle around in the centre console or door map-pocket, taking up space. Or get lost. 

Electric handbrakes Okay for automatics but awful for manuals, they replace the feelsome and ergonomically perfect handbrake lever with an electric switch. Try edging uphill into a parking space with an on-off switch to stop or slow you. You’ll miss the delicate control of a good old-fashioned handbrake. 

CarPlay Apple’s attempt to turn your car into a smartphone on wheels. It even reads your text messages. A great way to distract drivers. Mind you, you can keep your eyes on the road by asking Siri. In which case you may end up in Kennington when you want to go to Kensington, and call John Legend when you want to listen to John Lennon.  

Adaptive cruise control Your car automatically tracks the car in front and keeps a constant distance from it, braking and accelerating automatically. You can relax. Except you don’t. 

Sports suspension Ruins the ride quality. But you’ll gain a few tenths around the ’Ring.

Space-saver spare (or no spare at all) The industry saves money by not providing a proper spare wheel. Yet there is normally still a spare-wheel well, so no space is actually saved. 

Tyre pressure warning If cars don’t get flat tyres – the car industry’s excuse for not giving you a spare (see above) – why do you need these? They flash and squawk and beep and annoy. Relax. Your tyres are invariably fine.

AdBlue The car industry’s latest desperate attempt to make diesels cleaner. It’s urea (or urine) stored in a tank, injected into the car’s exhaust to reduce NOx. Diesel cars really do now take the piss.

Anything Gavin's missed? Sound off on your car tech pet hates in the comments below

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience