There are few automotive experiences more enjoyable than driving a rear-wheel-drive sports car in the snow. As I write this, it’s minus seven degrees Fahrenheit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I just drove my 2017 Toyota 86 to the office in a proper blizzard. The automatic climate control wasn’t working for the very good reason that my small sports car doesn’t have automatic climate control. I adjusted the fan speed, temperature, and air distribution by twisting a trio of clearly labeled knobs. I quickly turned off the traction and stability control by pressing a clearly labeled button, which helped the winter-tire-equipped Toyota maintain momentum through small snow drifts and yet-to-be-plowed intersections. I’m always fully aware of, involved with, and connected with my 86 at all times during slippery and challenging journeys like these, but it was clear by looking at other motorists that I was a rare exception to the norm. It seems technology is making most of us worse drivers, and even less informed about the equipment and capability of our vehicles.
Let’s start with illumination. My Toyota features the near-universal luxury of automatic headlights, but I’m well aware that they only activate in low-light situations, so I don’t rely on the handy automated feature. Yet most drivers do just that, never touching the knob or switch once they drive away from the dealership, and many have zero understanding of the importance of headlights when buckets of snow (or rain) are falling from the sky. Headlamps aren’t just about lighting the path ahead so you can see where you’re going. They’re also there so others can see your vehicle. If the weather isn’t fully clear, turn on your headlights, manually. Doing so not only activates the headlights, but it also turns on the taillights. Remember, daytime running lights don’t illuminate the rear of your vehicle.
As I passed several unlit automotive phantoms—and not the Rolls-Royce kind—haunting the local roads on my way to work, I also spotted more than a few cars stuck in snowy intersections and driveways. Yes, there was a solid few inches on the ground and many Michigan drivers either neglect to or can’t afford to fit winter tires, but there wasn’t that much snow. I noticed one particular current-generation Ford Focus stopped dead in its tracks. As the driver attempted to extract the sedan by rocking the vehicle, the front tires were barely turning. This driver didn’t understand that traction control can cause and/or exacerbate certain vehicle-disabling situations like the one they were in. It doesn’t help that in that in non-RS, non-ST Focus models the ability to disable the wheelspin-killing feature is buried in a digital menu. This approach seems to be growing in popularity on newer automobiles, which is a shame. In four-season locales, being able to quickly defeat the electronic safety nets can at times be as crucial to safety as having them on while on the move.
Stability control exists in the same technological realm, but where traction control is essentially only meant to reduce wheelspin, stability control’s purpose is to keep your car on its intended driving line. I love this skid-reducing feature and support it being standard on all automobiles, but I also feel it generally makes us worse drivers. The safety feature has kept countless drivers out of ditches—or worse—but it also means many people are no longer learning how to correctly control a slide, instead trusting the computers to sort things out. And it may even be filling chiropractors’ pocketbooks. I spotted many neck-snapping stability-control events during the snowstorm, with ham-fisted steering inputs causing head-tossing tank slappers, the vehicles clumsily wagging back and forth as human arm movements battled computerized control. Smooth, intuitive inputs are key to good, safe driving in almost every situation, but the need for them is magnified in low-traction situations.
Technology can also be an impediment when the snow melts and roads dry. The latest infotainment features and other technologies give drivers even more reasons to not pay attention; while receiving text-message alerts via the infotainment system is a better option than directly using your smartphone, it’s still very distracting. Radar cruise control allows drivers to make far fewer manual adjustments of their speed on the freeway, reducing fatigue—a good thing—but many seem to then dwell in the left lane. These folks amble along instead of actually paying attention and helping everyone on the road by getting out of the way.
Which brings me to fully autonomous automobiles. I’m an old-school, manual-transmission-loving car guy but I’m also fully supportive of automated transportation. I like the idea of shutting all the computerized systems off when I want to have fun and be fully involved with driving but also having the option to flip a switch and let my car do 100 percent of the work when I don’t want to. But we are many, many years away from that reality, and it’s the intermediate technologies on the way to automation that concern me. Until we get to the point where you can grab a pillow and take a nap on the way home from the office, put your phone away, manually turn on your headlights, learn how to smoothly control a slide, and turn off your traction control when it makes sense to do so. And most important, pay attention and be fully involved with driving your vehicle each and every time you get behind the wheel—no matter the weather or what driver-assistance features your vehicle has. Heck, you might just enjoy yourself.