Whenever I come to Portugal, I've found that Port wines (which are older than I am) tend to have four-figure price tags. Says it all.
As I type this article on a drab, soggy day in Blighty; it's obvious that this time of year is a pretty glum affair. Christmas celebrations are all but a distant memory, the last of the decorations are back in the attic and the once magnificently decorated fir tree that filled our lounge with joy, sparkle and colour now epitomises the melancholy as it lies bare next to the compost heap.
Glimmer of cheer
However if you're an older motorist like me, there does appear to be a faint glimmer of cheer in the air. A ray of sunlight bathes wintry uplands. I recently read that Tesla is going to abandon some of its more pointless tech, presumably to save a few quid, as the electric car maker's fortunes hits the buffers. Lots of Tesla owners have long realised that having a U-shaped steering on a road car wasn't a particularly splendid idea. That's because cars, unlike aircraft, don't just travel in straight lines. Car steering wheels have always been circular for good reason. It makes them easier to park and maneuver!
It looks like Tesla designers have long been determined to reinvent the wheel. But the jolly old wheel has been here for a very long time and the laws of physics make it a pretty difficult design to improve upon. Ambitious brands such as Tesla must surely hold their hands up when they fail to notice major design pitfalls when meddling just for the sake of it. The fact that they've reverted to having workable (standard) steering wheels on their cars means that there’s still hope for those of us who have long feared the extinction of 'normal' motor cars.
Brands like Tesla tend to be trendsetters and that is a concern to many motorists of my generation. That's because, as a rule, older drivers don't really fancy the idea of cars packed full of pointless tech. Us oldies prefer familiarity within a user-friendly driving environment. Basically, we like to have cars we can actually use and rely upon. Let's face it, the more tech that's packed into a car, the greater the likelihood that some of it will eventually go wrong. Car computer systems are often interconnected, so if one bit goes down - it can actually stop the whole thing from working.
Recently, the more I've been looking at modern cars, the more I realise that manufacturers are opting for standard design choices. Volkswagen, for instance. They've said that their next-generation models will have tangible buttons on the steering wheel instead of the infuriatingly over-sensitive 'touch' gizmos fitted to some of their recent models, such as the Golf GTI.
One of my biggest automotive bugbears are those dreaded infotainment screens. As far as I can see, they're just a mobile phone (or tablet) bolted onto the top of the dash. There's no denying that they're extensions of your mobile because they can be directly connected to it via Bluetooth or a USB cable.
I've so often watched people fiddling with these infotainment systems instead of looking where they're going. I've even witnessed them being used to read and even answer text messages WHILE people are driving! I do get the ingenuity of this tech but can't help but wonder about the road safety element. Infotainment systems are deemed 'hands-free' but they definitely encourage drivers to take their eyes off the road. It's illegal to use a mobile handset whilst driving a car but it's perfectly OK to muck about with an infotainment touchscreen? Really? As far as I am concerned, these things are just as distracting as a mobile phone, because to all intents and purposes they ARE our mobile phones - and lots more besides.
Some cars don't even have buttons or dials to control ventilation and air-conditioning systems, it's all done via the central screen. Even heated seats and radios are devoid of buttons. However I've noticed that slowly but surely new cars are reverting back to having tangible switchgear, if you can find them, that is. The buttons are often hidden away on a panel annexed to the central screen. But these buttons are seldom backlit so you can't actually see which one does what after it gets dark. Perhaps manufacturers are embarrassed to have visible retrograde switchgear on their modern cars?
I guess that design departments have to produce cars that offer universal appeal. But, surely when we're spending all that cash on a new car, it isn't too much to ask for tactile switchgear even if only as an option? It's clear that a certain customer demographic will find newfangled OLED touch screens (and all the associated gizmos) difficult to fathom, fiddly and even a bit dazzling for nighttime driving.
I wonder what your thoughts are on this? I guess much depends on your age and how 'computer-literate' you happen to be. My kids and grandkids seem to have it all sussed but they've been brought up gazing at a multitude of screens almost from birth. Whether it's PC's, portable Nintendo Gameboys or mobile phones; scrolling through drop-down menus comes as second nature to them. Kids instinctively navigate on-screen options without fuss.
For a Grumpasaurus like me, the motor industry appears to have been slowly running out of helpful kit to slot into our cars. I reckon that this has been the case for the last 25 years or so. Of course things like ABS, airbags, ESP (and equivalent systems) are all priceless safety attributes. As for SAT-NAV systems? Well, they equate to modern technological miracles which have helped take the stress out of car journeys. In actual fact, cars have never been more comfortable and safe, which is a reassuring thought for motorists including myself.
But now that the very best ideas seem to have been exhausted, it hasn't stopped the motor industry from going on a tech and styling frenzy. For example, some cars are kitted out with interior LED 'ambient lighting' which make the occupants feel like they're traveling around in a seedy Vegas gin bar. Some even have massaging seats and in-car drinks coolers (the mobile gin bar analogy holds). It makes me wonder where all this is leading to.
Although I own a modern car complete with all the usual screens and gizmos, I still pine for those great motor cars of old. The ones that had just the right amount of safety kit aboard. With the addition of a decent heater, a reasonable stereo, plush comfortable seating and maybe air-con for those sultry summer days when traveling with kids - I was a happy chappy!
Perhaps the old adage holds true as far as our cars are concerned? The less, the more. At long last, it appears that there may be hints that some manufacturers believe this too. We live in hope.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.
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