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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Not all innovation is good


Since the inception of automobiles, their makers have been engaged in a non-stop competition to offer “the latest and greatest.”  This race to offer buyers ever-evolving designs and features has resulted in an endless run of automobile innovation.

In 1911, the electric start feature made starting an engine easier for everyone and now possible for those physically compromised.  Cigarette lighters were available by 1921, followed by goodies like radios, coil springs, keys, power steering, cruise control, seat belts, intermittent wipers, power windows and power door locks.

Those items have become so wanted by consumers that they have become standard equipment. Some are for convenience, but others, like anti-lock brakes and backup cameras have origins based on safety.  Now, manufacturers are on a renewed path of innovation for driver-assist options top the competition.

Relatively new stuff like lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control that maintains proper spacing with vehicles ahead, automatically stopping if necessary, are gaining in popularity. And it looks like such systems are an impetus for eventual autonomous operation.

But are automobile manufacturers sometimes giving us more than we want?  In some instances, I think so, and others feel the same according to a recent Forbes survey.

Do we really need key fobs the size of small bananas?  Survey respondents don’t think so. With the advent of push-button start, the fobs are getting huge.  Is push button start, around since the 1930s, an improvement to safety or convenience?  With that accompanying giant fob — no.  Keys used to fit comfortably in my pocket — bloated fobs not so much.  Besides that, many drivers have failed to shut vehicles off — thinking since they have the fob, they’ve turn off the engine. Those running vehicles in garages are linked to at least 28 carbon monoxide deaths.

The survey also concurs with my distaste for auto stop/start.  It’s designed to save fuel by shutting off the engine while the vehicle is momentarily stopped.  I don’t know how much the fuel savings is, but it is not natural to sit amid traffic that way.  Plus, the surge when letting off the brake and restarting engine for takeoff is not that smooth.  Manufacturers are using every trick to meet fuel economy standards, but they must know this one is questionable, since an easy disable switch appears on every application.

Lane departure warnings beep so often that they are eventually ignored, much as the boy who cried, “Wolf.”  Again, drivers regularly defeat the feature by turning it off.

Touch controls get mixed reviews, but many drivers struggle to see and locate the proper points to touch while driving.  Additionally, certain functions, like radio tuning and volume controls are easier and faster with old fashioned knobs.  Manufacturers must be on the fence on this, as the once displaced knobs are now commonly reappearing alongside the touch controls giving drivers a choice of old or new.

Accepted automobile features are sort of a trial-and-error process — and even the good ones might take time to “stick.”  Power door locks were not an instant or widespread success, but now it’s hard to get by without them. 

While certain items are questionable, there is no doubt that the cars of today are monumentally safer, more comfortable and easier to drive than any time in history.  Competition among automakers is a good thing — eventually the good stuff stays as useless items are discontinued.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at