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W
hen smartphones, texting and social media start replacing people’s ability (and desire) to actively socialize, things are beginning to go wrong. Asking a pretty girl out on a date involves more work with your thumbs than it does with some semblance of charm. Soon, any kind of online video resume or social media site will supplant your ability to put on a spiffy suit, press the flesh with the powers that be and verbally convince them that you deserve bi-weekly pay.

So, what happens when, in turn, the automotive realm is peppered with all manner of high-tech driving aids? Does it make the world a better place or does it mean the loss of real skills? Granted, most drivers don’t really have what amounts to any skill aside from smiling with their eyes open at the DMV; but for those who don’t have ridiculously high insurance premiums, it matters.

Largely for kicks, I spend at least fifteen minutes per week messing around with online automotive configurators just to see what kind of magical combination of options I can drum up for a new vehicle. And just about every time I engage these sites, I’m stupefied by the amount of driver assist technology available. Before you judge, I’m not some stick-in-the mud, old-school traditionalist who refuses to adapt. I’m as addicted to the next new thing as many of our readers, and I get to enjoy many of these futuristic features when I test automobiles, marveling at what automotive engineering wizardry has wrought. But, in my heart of hearts, I consider myself a driver first and foremost — above and beyond a gadget geek — and that says at least a few nice things about me. First, I believe that driving is a conglomeration of skills that can’t be isolated to just the starting of an engine, the application of throttle and brake and the turning of a steering wheel. Second, I feel those skills must be honed and can’t simply be replaced by buttons and technology. Third, sometimes more stuff is just a distraction from a true driving experience.

Rather than relying on tech to keep you going straight, get some coffee, smoke a cigar, or just pull off the highway and take a nap.

Driving safely (and well) means staying focused and being aware of your environment, regardless of the technology you’ve ponied up for. Of course, there’s no doubt that the latest driver aids can make a difference. Take, for example, collision detection & prevention. How such a system operates varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in general, the aid helps mitigate or avoid accidents by making use of radar monitors and braking assistance. At a certain distance, the radar provides information and combines it with the speed and trajectory of the car — cuing the driver with a warning when a collision is likely. Typically, braking assistance is employed only when the driver responds to the warning by applying the brakes. At this point, the prevention function kicks in and applies additional braking force if sufficient pedal pressure is not applied by the driver. Who wouldn’t want this in his new car? It can, as they say, keep the shiny side up, no doubt helping to save lives. What it can’t do is take the place of awareness or street smarts.

I can understand the aforementioned driver aid, along with safety measures such as ABS — they enhance a driver’s abilities rather than replace them. Lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring, less so. These actually allow you to pay less attention. Rather than relying on tech to keep you going straight, get some coffee, smoke a cigar, or just pull off the highway and take a nap. Maybe even all three. Place your rear and side mirrors properly and you’ll cover nearly the entire rear of the car. Try turning your head once in a while — it’s old school, but it works.

As a final illustration, let’s take two sports cars at opposite ends of the cost and technology spectrum. First, the Porsche 911 4S Cabriolet, a ferocious $150K+ beast with enough power to launch you to 60 in a heartbeat and enough gadgets to make you read the manual at least three times to make sure you’re not forgetting something. Second, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, a diminutive pocket rocket that doesn’t even have 200 hp, lacks traction control and barely scrapes $30k in its most expensive iteration. Both cars garner respect in the automotive world, albeit the valets likely won’t be at each other’s throats to park your Miata. As intoxicating as the Porsche is and as wonderful as it is to drive (as well as be seen in), I recently found myself studying the buttons and various gauges, feeling as though I was prepping for math finals. My drive was delayed, and I was even distracted while behind the wheel — not because it was necessary for me to use every available feature in the car, but because I felt compelled to because they were there. A jaunt in the Miata involved starting the engine, dropping the manual top and just using my senses to thoroughly and safely enjoy the drive.

Sure, I’ll concede the point that technology can be wonderful, especially in the case of vehicles. But as more and more driver aids rear their heads and make their way into more affordable cars, you’ll start seeing true driver ability fly out the proverbial side window. So if you one day find yourself wholly reliant on automotive tech to keep on the straight and narrow, you’d better have deep pockets or a great warranty — because your brain sure won’t help you.

CHEERS, JEERS? We’d love to hear from you. Email the author at akwon [at] gearpatrol.com and let him know what you think. Just remember, you’re what makes us rev. Thanks for reading.