Mastering the Technology of a New Car

Our fifteen-year-old clunker, a 2002 Nissan Sentra with only 118,000 kilometres on it, finally ran into the ground on the July long weekend. There was a terrible racket from underneath the car that turned out to be a heat shield dragging on the pavement. A minor repair maybe, but we had long ago agreed that we would not put another cent into it. I called the Kidney Foundation and a few days later, they towed it away, providing me with a $300 charitable donations receipt.

We mined Phil Edmonston’s Lemon-aid New and Used Cars and discovered a new class of vehicle which we did not know existed. It’s a CUV, a crossover utility vehicle, which is smaller than an SUV and apparently very popular. That the seats of the car are higher off the ground is a huge advantage for seniors with mobility issues, and apparently there are now all sorts of safety features that will prevent crashes. We considered only two vehicles: the Nissan Rogue and the Toyota RAV4. Ultimately, we settled on the Toyota because I wanted a hybrid.

I made an appointment on the internet to test drive a RAV4 hybrid first thing Tuesday morning. The local Toyota dealership was only a short distance away by streetcar. When we arrived, the young sales rep showed us the exact model we were interested in and, within an hour, we became owners of a new RAV4 hybrid he would deliver to our home two days later. On delivery, the sales rep spent an hour and a half explaining how the car worked, and then left us with the car and two thick manuals. Undoubtedly, this was the most expeditious car purchase we have ever made.

Buying is easy. Learning how to use it more difficult. Three and a half months later, the car is still a continuing revelation. Keyless, the car door opens when we approach, so long as we have the fancy fob (worth $800 if lost) in pocket or purse. It took me several days to realize that, locking it, requires two taps on the door handle that will activate a light on the mirror to tell me that the car is actually locked. And although it is clear that one has to depress the brake before pushing the ignition button, the car is so quiet that we have on occasion forgotten to turn it off. Once, several hours after we last used it, a neighbour knocked on our front door to tell us that our car parked on the street still seemed to be running. Even yesterday when I was outside the car, the lights were still on and the door would not lock, and I couldn’t figure out why. Only then did it come to me that I had forgotten to depress the ignition button.

Then there is the gear shift lever. Whenever we put it into reverse, the camera appears on the master console screen with yellow and red lines showing where our car is in relation to cars behind it. The yellow line is apparently the trajectory of our car. The red line is the point at which I would actually hit the car behind. Gauging how those lines reflect the reality of the space required for parallel parking has been a challenge. But I’m getting the hang of it, finally. It even beeps a warning if someone or something should cross my path behind.

The warning beeps, and the flashing lights, are marvellous. So long as the various safety features are turned on, the lights on the mirrors will flash when a car, or sometimes even a bicycle in a bicycle lane, is passing in my blind spot. Or when I am drifting out of my lane on the freeway. If the beeps or lights come on, I now know to pay attention. Something is wrong; my job is to figure out what.

For all the wonderful safety features of this new car, the Master Console Screen is terribly distracting. It will take us forever to understand all its features, but already we are learning. We have more or less mastered the Audio; endless radio choices, SiriusXM if we knew why we should subscribe to it, and my entire music collection accessible by merely inserting a computer stick into the USB port below. And, just to make sure that we are fully informed, the screen identifies each program and each piece of music we hear.

As for the Apps, the Navigation feature has already proven invaluable. Tap in an address and a map and a friendly voice will give directions. Maybe even several options, with times and distances, for how to get there. How we are to evaluate the routes, we doen’t yet know. But we’ve already learned several things:

  1. The system will not allow us to tap in a new destination when the car is moving. Apparently that is a safety feature to prevent distracting the driver.
  2. The directions for the downtown core must be taken with a grain of salt. Often we know better than the system how to get from our home to the Gardiner expressway, for example. To its credit, the system adjusts to the route we actually choose to go.
  3. On the highway, the directions are usually right and we second guess the system at our peril.
  4. I must become more tolerant when the voice mispronounces local street names. The fact that AI is not perfect, I should consider some consolation.

The Telephone App is a light-year improvement over the dashboard cradle which used to hold my iPhone in the Sentra. So long as the smart phone is in my purse, it apparently connects by Bluetooth to the console screen. Phone numbers magically appear on the screen. Those numbers we use regularly are now installed for instant access by touch. And I’ve discovered a button on the steering wheel which I can push to activate a personal assistant who will call someone else on my Contacts list or find coffee shops, gas stations and restaurants nearby. All I need to do is think up something for the assistant to do and, voilà, the call is made or the results appear on the screen. Talking so easily on the telephone in the car is a new treat for me and I love it. As for the computer searches for nearby restaurants, I have to steel myself not to look at the results while driving alone. That would be dangerous.

Learning not to be distracted by the Master Console Screen is a major challenge. At first, we were endlessly fascinated by the colourful image which shows the flow of power in our hybrid from the gas engine and the battery, and back again. Trying to figure out what conditions cause the operation to change, and how that affects gas mileage, was an initial preoccupation which we have given up. I now just rely on the gas gauge showing the mileage to the next fill-up. It appears somewhere in the second set of information windows behind the steering wheel itself. Those are controlled by a toggle on the steering wheel which has multiple functions that I am gradually learning how and when to use. I wish I could just read the manual and assimilate all its info, flat-out. Alas, that’s not my learning style.

Last week, my husband looked up how to turn on the heated steering wheel and the heated seats which were supposed to be in this car. In the past, he scoffed at such amenities. Not any more. He likes the heated seat, even in warm fall temperatures. He says the warmth reduces the pain in his back. And the heated steering wheel? All the better to assuage arthritis in aching fingers and wrists. Who would have guessed that our new car, as well as being a fabulous new computer (perhaps more properly a mirror for my computer), was also going to be a new mode for therapy?

This could be the last new car we ever buy. Just as well. Learning how to use all its features may well take us a decade.

 

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7 comments

  1. Jorge S.

    Marion:

    This issue regarding your new car is most interesting. A couple of months ago I rented a vehicle in Newfoundland that came with some of the modern features you are describing. For the first two days the car was a perfect nightmare. When I returned the car 9 days later, there were still some features I never knew how to operate.

  2. Marlene K

    Glad you’re enjoying your toyota hybrid. We love ours also, albeit we don’t have all the bells and whistles you have. Just think, we’re not far from driverless cars!

  3. Jeffrey H.

    I still have my 1999 Civic Si Sports Coupe with 80,000 clicks and NO computer on board. What you have written is fascinating, Marion, but it confirms me in my plan to keep my simple little car on the road as long as possible, sans pricey key-fob and Boeing Master Console Screen. The friendly people at Peter’s Garage will help me. Let’s forget about my “last new car”! My easy-to-understand old stick-shift donkey will likely be the last new vehicle I’ll ever buy — unless I can find a computerless second-hand replacement when the time comes. Maybe by then the makers will have seen sense and have retro models available!

    • Marion

      I applaud your plan. Your position is what I think about computers generally. Constant add-ons may benefit the techies who think them up. We ordinary folk crave simplicity. By the way, where is Peter’s Garage? .

      • Jeffrey H.

        Peter’s Garage is at the n/e corner of College and Robert. It’s “in the book.” Peter was its founder back in the 1970s, but while he and his amiable grin are still very much on the scene, his son Vasso is now usually behind the counter. They originally specialized in VWs, but now I think they’ll look after any small foreign car. Just phone and ask. Tell them Jeff sent you.

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