These are the 10 most useless car features
Just like much in the modern world, we never asked for any of this confusing awfulness
Social media messaging integration
Well, we may as well start with the least sensical addition ever. At least in the case of the rest of the ideas on this list, there was a logical path from drawing board to dashboard.
But what could have possibly gone on in the series of meetings that preceded adding social network messaging to your daily commute? Well, we’re not clairvoyant – probably because no one is, but we digress – but we do have one theory about what went on behind meeting-room doors.
Middle manager: “Hey, let’s make sure that our drivers can be distracted not just by phone calls and SMS messages, but every single new update to the WhatsApp group chat and that dude on Facebook messenger that’s interested in buying their old couch!”
Middle manager’s underling: “Great idea, boss!"Advertisement - Page continues below
Gestures are a time-honoured method of communication between human beings. A friendly wave, a helpful point, a judicious application of the forks at the apposite moment. All terrific ways of conveying your point, your mood and your inability to recognise that no, weddings probably aren’t an apt moment to throw up a two-fingered salute.
If you think about it, we’re so good at gestures that we can bridge language barriers and even create entire languages based purely on gestures.
Machines are a much newer, but equally amazing way to communicate with other people. But communicating with machines themselves? Well, that usually involves giving clear and unambiguous directions. The press of a key on a keyboard. The flick of a switch. Alternatively – if you’re the sort who enjoys terminal frustration – some interpretive dance from the driver’s seat as you attempt to turn the air-con down and end up listening to talkback FM. Progress!
Aesthetic versions of utilitarian features
It seems there’s a sequence as reliable as the tides when it comes to cars: a need for a certain ability arises, so designers and engineers add that ability to the car, truck or 4x4. It has a useful purpose and is designed to fulfil that purpose. It is therefore a very good thing. Then someone decides they like the aesthetics of the thing in question, but has no desire to a) use it for its intended purpose or b) cough up the money required for the properly engineered original. Then you get roof rails that aren’t rated to carry more than a handful of fairy floss, brush guards that offer less protection than a sheet of cling film and bull bars that couldn’t stop a bull pat, let alone the beast that created it.
And it’s not just in the automotive world where this happens. Back in 1944, the US Navy asked Emeco to build a chair for use on its ships and submarines, and required that it be lightweight, fireproof, salt-air-resistant and durable. So Emeco hand-built literally thousands of Navy chairs from recycled aluminium using a 77-step process. These things last pretty much indefinitely and have made legions of fans that include names like Philippe Starck and Giorgio Armani. Now go and search for one. What do you find? The real deal, then a series of shops offering knock-offs.
And that is our problem in a nutshell – people buying aesthetic copies of products that have a very definite purpose, a depth of engineering and an enduring quality that the imitations lack. So what precisely is the point of buying something that’s all hat and no cattle?Advertisement - Page continues below
One of our favourite stories told in the office (back when that was a normal thing) is when Stephen Dobie, a man from very much within the boundaries of England, completely failed to get the voice recognition system in the brand-new car he was driving to recognise his very English accent. No sense shaming the car in question, because they’re all about as bad as each other. And no need to shame Dobie for where he comes from, either – especially when it’s much easier to shame his preference for tea so strong you could use it as embalming fluid.
So, you might be thinking, the problem is an iterative one – with each update, the onboard computer can be trained to recognise and interpret more languages and accents. But here’s where that gets a little problematic.
Imagine the time and effort required to get every accent, every creole and every dialect properly dialled into voice-recognition software. No, really, go on and come up with an idea for how long it would take. How did you do? We... uh, failed entirely. It’s genuinely impossible for us to conceive of a time frame any more accurate than “really a very long time”. One thing we can conceive, on the other hand, is that it’s probably easier to just push a button.
Ever want to make a bit of a difference to the world around you? Us too. So we have a compost bin, use our heating and cooling sparingly, turn everything off when we leave a room, try to have short showers, recycle and make considered purchases. Then watch as, for instance, the Australian government decides to not make use of the endless sunshine that cooks the wide brown land by supporting a nationwide solar-powered system, like most Australians want, but instead invest public money in fracking and fractional distillation.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell – the onus is put on you, as the individual, to make a series of changes to your lifestyle, while governments and big business make massive changes that render your environmentally conscious lifestyle about as impactful as a set of water wings on the Titanic.
This screed, if you’ve put up with it, brings us to the change-up indicator. Rather than giving us more real-world efficient engines or skimming weight for fuel economy (and manifold other benefits), manufacturers give us a little pictogram on the dashboard telling us we really shouldn’t be in the gear we think is right for the situation at hand. Thanks fellas, we’re sure to save the world that way.
CVT paddle shifters
The CVT is a modern marvel of engineering. Solving the problem of engines’ inherent imperfect torque curves – not with stepped gear ratios, but a nearly infinite range of torque multiplication that constantly adjusts to keep the engine in its optimum torque band. Genius.
It is also absolutely awful to experience. The sound of an engine sitting at 3,500rpm or so as you accelerate might indicate peak efficiency, but it also is the worst droning we’ve ever heard.
That must be why users of CVTs, like Nissan, Honda and Subaru, tend to also add paddle shifters, which run through a small number of predefined steps in the CVT to better mimic a regular gearbox. Not to nitpick or anything, but doesn’t that immediately render the CVT completely useless? If you want a stepped gearbox, get one. If you’re OK with the CVT doing its best to make your engine sound like a box full of wasps, then you may have clicked on the wrong link and ended up at this website.
Beeping back-up warning
Reversing cameras? Love ’em. Being able to see where you’re reversing without building the entire back of your car out of glass is a gift from the heavens themselves.
A piercing beep that starts off at ‘strident sonar’ and ends up at ‘Amazonian White Bellbird having a panic attack’ while you’re trying to concentrate on what you’re doing? Get thee behind me, foul spawn of Beelzebub. No, not actually behind me, then I can’t reverse. Yeesh.
On a related topic, can we go ahead and talk about the system that’s in the BMW X5 (and, we’re assuming, many others)? If you open the door while the car is in gear, it has a full-blown meltdown, puts itself in park and sends up the kind of plaintive wail that should be reserved for anyone who ever had to watch Cats. We tried to reverse into one of those angled car parking spaces that Australians have, opened the driver’s door to see if we were inside the lines and were immediately confronted by the kind of warning that really should be reserved for a Soviet nuclear reactor on the morning of April 26, 1986.
So, to car manufacturers everywhere – just trust us, OK? We’ve got this.Advertisement - Page continues below
To a pilot, g-force is very important. Go too far into positive or negative g and you’ll pass out, regardless of your fancy flight suit that helps fight G-LOC. What’s G-LOC? Well, it’s Loss Of Consciousness, due to G. And yes, there is a special set of trousers to help prevent that. There are also a series of exercises. Think of it, really, as the most extreme version of a visit to the physiotherapist.
G-force is also important to aircraft, which can come apart under g-stress if not properly designed and constructed. Regular aeroplanes, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, can handle 3.8 positive g and 1.9 negative g, whereas aerobatic aircraft can do 6.0 positive g and 3.0 negative. So it’s very important to have a g-meter onboard to ensure you don’t rip the wings off the fuselage and plummet to the ground.
A g-meter in a car, on the other hand, is nothing but tummysticks of the highest order. “I pulled 1.4g in that corner,” says Mr Ten Tenths. “Bah, that’s nothing,” says Mr Mimes Oppositelock, “I hit 1.55g in the same corner. I am the victor and better than you. Be ashamed.”
Engine sound synthesiser
For whatever reason, engines sound really, really good. We’re not experts in psychoacoustics (in case that first sentence didn’t give that away already), but the sound of fuel being burned in a cylinder, the sound of the delicate and precise ballet of mechanical parts, the sound of exhaust gas flowing through a pipe... it speaks to us. And you too, we’re willing to bet.
Unfortunately, that wonderfully mellifluous and sonorous sound is, at its core, the sound of inefficiency. If engines were 100 per cent efficient, they’d make no noise and generate no heat. This is, as far as we can tell, a physical impossibility, so engine noise is safe for now. Y’know, until electric cars take over.
So the inefficiency remains. But car makers have emissions regulations to comply with, tax bands to duck under and fuel efficiency targets to hit, even under new, more rigorous testing. So what happens? You guessed it – engine management programs as stingy with petrol as a broke teenager giving his equally broke friends a lift. High-efficiency turbochargers that, by their very nature, muffle exhaust and intake noise. Smaller-capacity engines and smaller cylinder counts. Obviously not saying that small engines or cylinder counts necessarily mean bad sound – just ask anyone who drives a Lancia Fulvia or, y’know, rides a motorbike.
But in the case of so many cars, the tempest of sound – be it a furious snarl, a burbling basso profondo or anywhere in between – is being replaced by a monotone buzz. So what are carmakers to do, caught between the hardest of places and the least forgiving of rocks? Well, apparently, give up and rely on artifice instead. You’ve likely heard of BMW’s descent into digital simulacra, but the rot has spread much further than executive rockets. The Peugeot 308 GTI is actually a fabulous hot hatch – right up until you turn sport mode on, and it winds up for its fake climax.Advertisement - Page continues below
All right, that does it. No more being cute or coy or having a sly dig in good humour. It’s time to lay it out.
Driving a car is a privilege.
Human beings have existed for, as far as we can tell, hundreds of thousands of years. The car is the product, then, of hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error, failing and picking ourselves up again, and imagining a tomorrow that’s better than today. We stand on the shoulders of countless giants who are responsible for the litany of discoveries and inventions needed to even conceive of a car, let alone refine and perfect the automobile to the point where you can reasonably expect to drive from Venice to Vladivostok without any mechanical maladies.
And now, apparently, we can’t be bothered to drive ourselves along in the fruit of hundreds of thousands of years of labour. It’s too much of a faff to sit in traffic or cruise along a motorway. It’s too much of a chore to sit in climate-controlled comfort, listening to our favourite album, and do our own merging and overtaking. It’s all just too much, apparently, which must be why we’ve all been clamouring for the car to take over and relieve us from the monotony of controlling the most complex and amazing machine that most of us will ever be in charge of. Yeah, right.
Want someone else to take you where you need to go? Take a train. The rest of us will drive ourselves where we want to be, marvelling at just how generally fortunate we are to live at this point in human history.