Warning! Here Comes the Nanny-Car

Is it a good idea to turn the pleasure of driving into a barrage of beeps, flashes, cautions and commands? He thinks not.

My first truly modern car was an '85 Saab 900. I know it was modern because it had a shift-up indicator light, presumably designed to help me save gas -- a yellow gearshift symbol that glowed brightly every time the revs reached about 2,500. Had I obeyed it, I'd have been motoring around like a Freightliner looking for a Hoboken loading dock.

Disabling the light also silenced the miserable seat belt buzzer. That was OK, because I didn't need to be reminded to wear a seat belt. I'd had seat belts in all my cars since 1953, when as a kid I installed a set made by the Hickok Manufacturing Co. -- the old Western-wear belts-for-pants people -- in my 1936 Ford Phaeton. It had been developed by the Cornell Aeronautical Lab, in a project with which my father had been peripherally involved. He gave the rig to me -- four aircraft-type belts laced through a big aluminum L-beam below and behind the front seat and tied to the frame through holes I drilled in the floor.

After the gearshift lights and seat belt buzzers came cars that locked us in as soon as the shifter went into drive, like a bank vault programmed for a long weekend: clunk. And this did not die after the era of K-Cars
and Cimarrons: There's a test-drive Corvette in my driveway right now, and the last time I tried to get out of it, I couldn't. The doors were locked. Sure, sure, I could have RTFM and then gone into the "program options for Driver 1/Driver 2" foolishness and specified that the car release me every time I turn off the ignition key. But does a default setting of Trapped make any sense? Not to this Luddite. Automatic locks were designed with safety in mind, but I sure don't want to be locked inside a crash-and-burn. In my work as an EMS volunteer, I too often watch firefighters stand by with hoses cocked as gasoline leaks from crashed cars while others work with pneumatic Jaws of Life to free the terrified, trapped driver. Me, I want explosive bolts to blow the doors off.

I rented a new Buick recently. Putting the car in gear before I fastened my belt, or turning off the ignition before I doused the headlights, set off a hysterical dang-dang-dang-dang-dang. Yet when I'd get out of the car, all the lights, inside and out, came on, presumably to keep at bay rapists in the Bennigan's parking lot. And stayed on, and on. Should I wait till they go off, or risk a dead battery? In the end, a whack of the headlight knob with the heel of my hand seemed to cure it of its pointless light show.

Oh, and how about the proliferation of one-touch electric windows, to spare us the agony of having to press a switch for an interminable four or five seconds? Trouble is, the device forces us to dance the window back and forth to get it to pause at intermediate positions. A new Audi RS 6 I recently drove provided this assumed luxury on all four windows, not only down but back up: Cracking a rear window to counter open-sunroof rumble required more multitasking than three cellphones.

Another Audi feature makes it clear these cars are designed for a culture of people who won't cross an empty street against a don't-walk light at 3 in the morning: No matter what you choose to display on the trip computer -- mpg, average speed, range or whatever amuses you -- the display flashes 2:00 ... 2:00 ... 2:00 ... after you've been driving for two hours. This tells good Germans to pull over and have a lie-down or a pee. Audi feels two hours is quite long enough, danke, to drive without a pause.

And another thing: I like to run my own windshield wipers. But rain-
sensing wipers are becoming a supposedly desirable feature of upscale cars, to spare busy motorists the task of deciding whether it's raining, and which wiper speed might be best. On a three-hour trip in an $80,000 Mercedes
S-Class a while ago, I was treated to the interminable squee-squee-squee of what I can only hope was a defective wiper blade, whenever the Benz tasted rain. Which was far too often for my taste. That left me manipulating them manually, one swipe at a time.

Or this: I was driving a Cadillac XLR, the new Batmobile roadster that wants to be a Mercedes SL500. The Caddy is filled with voltaic toys, from a head-up display to electric door handles. Press a rubbery surface on the exterior or interior latch, and the door pops free. Backing the big boat slowly toward a slight drop-off on the driveway, I tried to open the door to check how close the rear wheel was to the edge. The car had been programmed to lock automatically, however, so the door wouldn't open until I located an emergency manual release on the floor. Why do I have to pull an emergency device for a routine head-out-the-door safety check?

Another XLR feature is its version of the Mercedes Keyless Go system --
a fat electronic fob that activates the car's door locks and other systems as you approach or leave the car. There is no ignition lock, no conventional key, even as a backup. If the fob is near your person, the car will start at the push of a button on the dash.

No, it won't. Press Brake to Start, the instrument-panel message reads. OK, I'll press the brake. That doesn't start the engine either. Oh, I get it: Put Your Foot on the Brake, Which at Least Prevents You from Moronically Flooring the Gas, and Then Push the Button. The legacy of the witless 60 Minutes investigation into runaway Audis almost two decades ago is that soon nobody will be allowed to start a car, raise or lower a convertible top, or so much as open the gas cap without flooring the clutch,
putting on the parking brake and then putting both feet out the window.

Nanny-car syndrome will get worse, as traffic density and automotive performance increase; as manufacturers turn cars into rolling offices, restaurants, I'm-so-wired communicators and DVD entertainment centers; and as driver competence plummets. (When was the last time you heard anybody suggest stricter licensing standards, particularly for all those high-performance cars on the road?) Eventually, we will need automated cars, to make all the decisions we no longer can.

Today the message Headlights Suggested appears on the panel of the Caddy XLR, leading me to ask, "What do I look like, some moron who can't tell night from day?" Tomorrow it'll also say Directionals Suggested, How About Some Wipers? Aren't You Going a Little Fast? and perhaps Don't Even Think of Parking There. The day after that, there will be no suggestion, the car will simply do it all for you.

Can I have my Saab back?