When I was 4 years old a television series began that I would be addicted to for the next 4 years. Michael Knight would battle and catch evil doers every week with his trusty sidekick a hyper intelligent sports car that talked and drove on its own. I always wanted KITT, how cool would it be to have a car that talks and drives for you?!?
Well fast forward 35 years, I’m on a trip with my family in South Dakota and get a rental car from the airport. I’m supposed to have a Chevy Impala reserved and after delays at the Denver airport putting us behind schedule, I’m in no mood to have any further delays. The Hertz rental dude behind the counter drones on about the benefits of the additional insurance and then somewhere in his incomprehensible babble I hear the words “Volvo S60” ……
“Wait, what happened to my Impala? I don’t want some cramped foreign car”, I tell the rental agent.
“Oh no sir, this is a luxury upgrade”, he smiled.
Well, it’s about time something goes my way. I agree on the car and get the unnecessary scam insurance and gather the paperwork and luggage and head on our way. We get to the car, and wow it’s a sporty looking sleek black car.
“Oh my God! Is this our car?”, exclaim the kids.
Yes sir, that’s right I’m the cool dad, getting the sweet sporty car on our trip. I feel like Clark Griswold would have had he actually gotten the Antarctic blue super sports wagon with CB and optional rally package rather than the metallic pea wagon queen family truckster. Little did I know, this seemingly semi luxury Chariot would be possessed by demons from hell bent on driving me insane.
We loaded our luggage into the trunk and all loaded into the car. Another family that was on the same flight as we were walks to their car, “Oh my, y’all got a Volvo?” I hear them say. Beaming with pride, we jump into the car and press the ignition. The engine purrs to life and we hit the A/C. I look for the control panel, trying to find the GPS navigation only to see a plethora of buttons that looked like they belonged at the flight controls of an alien space craft. “Surely, I don’t need to use the buttons, this thing has to be touch screen”, I think to myself. However, as I sit tapping the screen repeatedly waiting for the device to miraculously comply my children sit in the back giggling to themselves, “It’s not a touch screen Dad”.
What the hell do these kids know, one just barely started driving, the other isn’t even out of elementary school. “I know what I’m doing”, I retort. “Just sit back there and hush”. But in reality, I have no idea how to work this alien technology. Finally, I tell the wife, let’s just go, you can mess with it on the way. We make our way to the nearest McDonalds for a quick drink stop, while the wife is concentrating on the Navigation system determined to make it work.
As we pull out of the drive through, the wife is still fighting with the buttons and dials. “Where do I go?”, I demand. She is beginning to sense my frustration and getting frustrated on her own.
“I’m trying to figure this out honey”, she replies patiently.
“Just leave the damn car alone and look for the directions on your phone”, I demand, my patience wearing thin. I just want to get to our destination and get off the road for the day. However, we can’t seem to find our way from the airport to the interstate without enlisting the favors of the GPS Gods. Finally, my wife gets the GPS on her phone working and we flip a U-turn and make our way to the interstate. Ah, now we can get to our destination, check into the hotel and relax.
As we hit the interstate, I’m happy to see that South Dakota throws caution to the wind and set the speed limit at a speedy 80 mph. Now we can get somewhere, no delays in the airport, no waiting on our luggage, we were in my element, cruising down the interstate headed for our destination. After fumbling with the controls for a few minutes, I finally figure out how to set the cruise control and we are on our way.
As we are flying down the interstate, we come upon other more cautious vehicles ahead of us. I watch them preparing to move over and pass. However, as we approach, they seem to speed up to a point where I don’t need to change lanes. As we are following the vehicles ahead of us, others speed around us in the left lane. Wow, if we are going 80, they must be flying, I think to myself. After more than a few zip around us, I look down at the speedometer “65” is showing on the screen. “What the hell”, I exclaim. We have come to a crawl, but I set the cruise to 80. I put my foot to the pedal, change lanes and get around the slow driver wondering if perhaps I didn’t set the cruise correctly. I mess with the buttons and controls and get the cruise set back at 80 and think I have it figured out.
We continue down the road and again come upon another car. This time I notice it, our car is decelerating. We are still well behind the turtle car, but our car is hitting the brakes slowing down. WTF? How does the car know I want to slow down? As I move over trying to get around the slow car ahead, I fail to hit my turn signals (hey I’m from New Mexico, it’s just how we do it) and change lanes. As I’m making my way into the left lane, I feel a vibration in the steering wheel and the vehicle slows down more.
Great, just freaking great! The car must be out of balance, I think to myself. However, as we get into the left lane and make our way around the other vehicles, the vibration goes away. Hmmm, now I’m wondering what just happened. I’m no mechanic, but I know a vibration when you’re going at 80mph isn’t necessarily a good thing. I start to pull to the side of the interstate and as soon as I hit the white line on the right, the steering wheel goes crazy and I now notice a red line flashing on the screen in front of me. A lightbulb goes off and I steer back into the driving lane. The vibration goes away and everything is fine.
Holy crap! This must be one of those smart cars, the ones that keep you from running over people in front of you and make sure you stay in your lane. This is awesome, I think, it’s like having KITT, little did I know, it was more like having Christine. I wonder what else this car will do? I excitedly tell the wife what I have discovered and demonstrate the cars intelligent capabilities by crossing the white lines and driving up on other vehicles. Like a kid with a new toy, I have to show it off. However, it didn’t take long for the new to wear off.
As I settled down, found a station, and got into my driving zone, we continued on our way to Milbank. However, several times between Sioux falls and Watertown, we came up on other vehicles and the car decided to slow down. We weren’t tailgaiting them, or even close enough to consider changing lanes, but Christine decided we needed to slow down and match their speed. There were a few times in the next 120 miles that I would look down and find that the car decided to slow down to 65-70 mph only to follow some slow poke ahead of us. The speed control became rather annoying over the next hour and half. By the time we got to Watertown, I began to think that having a car think for me may not be the best thing ever.
We made it to Watertown despite the vibrating steering wheel and overly cautious Christine slowing down. We spent a while visiting Aaron’s family and then decided we better head to our hotel. By this time, it was dark and I had decided to have a drink, so I had the wife drive. As we headed down the rural two-lane roads, the kids noticed the headlights dimming and getting brighter.
“Mom, are you working the headlights?”, our son asks. “I don’t hear them clicking.”
“Yes of course I am”, the wife replies. No sooner does she respond to the ridiculous inquiry, than does the car headlights dim without even a car near us. “That’s strange, maybe I’m not operating them”, she says. We begin to watch in anticipation with the next coming car, sure enough Christine dims her lights and brightens them after the car passes. However, the hills of South Dakota seem to confuse her as there were several incidents where the lights dimmed and were brightened several times before the oncoming car got to us. As we pulled into Milbank, we also noticed that the headlights turned with the steering wheel, a feature that after you’ve had a couple of drinks riding in the passenger seat kind of freaks you out.
We made it to the hotel, piled out and trudged up to our room without giving the car more thought. After a good night’s sleep, and a couple cups of coffee, we went down to the car to start our day. We decide it’s time for some breakfast and pull up to a local restaurant. I pull into the parking space and as I’m reaching up to push the button to turn off the car, one of the boys opens the back door and the car dies. Before I realize what happens, I push the button, and the car immediately starts again! Totally confused, I look around the car trying to figure out what was going on. The guilty look on my son’s face told the story and we figured out, Christine doesn’t like car doors being open while the car is running.
I’m sure all of these features, the speed control, the lane departure warning, and engine control are great safety features, and some people probably love them. However, I prefer to actually drive the car I’m in, not have the car drive me, and let me tell you having the car think for itself, was driving me crazy! Every time we would pull up to a stop light, the car felt like it was stalling out, apparently a feature that kills the engine when you stop to save fuel. This car was really beginning to piss me off, but what made it worse, was the kids in the back seat laughing like hyenas and making smart ass comments when something happened. Then, I made the mistake of letting my 16-year-old drive (please don’t tell Hertz they’ll probably never rent me a car again) and he had no problems with Christine. She behaved perfectly for him!
Maybe I’m old fashioned, maybe I’m just old, but my dream of being Michael Knight and driving KITT has been forever shattered. I was totally frustrated and annoyed with the rental car after only two days. Luckily, my stubbornness allowed me to find the buttons that turn off all of the so called “luxury” features on the car. In doing so, I think we will be able to make it back to the airport tomorrow without me wanting to drive it into a lake, but this trip has taught me that there is no way, I want a self-driving car. It looked cool for David Hasselhoff, but I am way too much of a control freak.