There will come a day when cars do the thinking for us. We’ll sip on a cognac in the backseat and a virtual chauffeur will cart us around like Johnny Cab from Total Recall.
Until then, we’re stuck with robotic innovations that are only marginally helpful, like lane-keeping that makes us look like we’re driving drunk on the road. I was pulled over in Las Vegas once when I tested lane-keeping on an Infiniti G37 and floated around in the lane too much. The irony is that I haven’t had a single drink of alcohol since the late 80s. (Long story on that one.)
You might not think it’s a big deal, but the new 2017 Cadillac XT5 has a bit of that robotic overlord feel in a crossover that is otherwise loaded with finer touches. The surround sound stereo made a new album by the band Beach Slang ring in my ears for hours after my test, in a good way. I liked how spacious the car felt, and was able to easily fit two mountain bikes in the back. When you pull a lever to push the second row seats forward, they spring like they know what to do.
My most troubling discovery is that you can’t disable the auto engine off feature. What the fruit bats? It’s like forcing you to use the escalator or rely entirely on a robotic vacuum cleaner. I’m particularly averse to this feature because I like to punch it a little off the starting block, and I can’t stand having a car turn the engine off at a stoplight. It’s jarring, mostly because cars are not supposed to do that, and I’m a child of the 70s, a time when my dad used to shut the engine off at every intersection. Even then I wondered if it was worth all of the trouble.
I’ve tested hundreds of cars and this is the first one that does not let you disable the feature. Usually, even in a Cadillac, there’s a button called Auto that disables this option.
Another irritating feature is that when you use the lane-keeping and try to change lanes, the car resists a little. I get that it is a safety feature, and other cars (I’m looking at you Chrysler 200) also don’t seem to know that you actually want to change lanes on purpose—but it’s annoying. Yes, I had my turn signal on. No, there wasn’t anyone in the approaching lane.
I know where this is all going. When we hand the keys to the robots, we’re in for a serious adjustment period. The car won’t pull forward at a stoplight because it thinks there’s an approaching train (even though the train hasn’t worked since the 90s). In an urban setting, the autonomous features will make sure we all drive like Auntie June on a Sunday.
Cars today do have some features that can make the car brake automatically, steer away from a car in an intersection, and (this one is really weird) know that the car in front of the car in front of you is braking. That’s one of those features that’s almost impossible to verify in the real world. I understand it’s helpful and creates a safety bubble, but what if you want to disable it?
My issue is not that the features should go away. We just really need to be careful about whether or not they are optional. Maybe there is a situation when you don’t want the car to do the thinking for you. Maybe you want to turn the engine off yourself. Maybe you want to change lanes.
When I drove the XT5, I felt like I was fighting against the inevitable. When I pulled up to a stoplight, I sat for a second and then pulled forward a little, which turns the engine on again. It’s a small victory. Someday, it’s possible the car won’t let us pull forward. Pray for us.