August 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

In-car alerts setting me off

Cacophony of safety beeps and buzzers a distracting trend

Today I’m poking fun at a minority — new-car buyers. Every year almost three times as many consumers buy used cars rather than new cars. Yet automakers, via their sales forces, must listen to the wishes only of new-car consumers. And what I’ve noticed, being a self-confessed used-car-only shopper, is that new-car buyers think a lot differently than the rest of us.

First, new-car buyers like gadgets and automatic, power-assisted features. I think they buy way too many of them, maybe on the urging of a particularly charismatic salesperson, or maybe through a process of extensive research and comparison shopping. I’m guessing both conditions are the reason that many of the gadgets that come on new cars try to predict your behavior: They guess when you want the doors unlocked, when you want the windshield wiped, and even when you need cologne applied (as the Mercedes top-line S-class model does).

The arguments from automakers are that automatic features save customers the trouble of having to think about operating the car. I believe there is a psychological reason, too: One local veteran auto scribe and friend who is now teaching college kids automotive journalism once wrote that he hated seeing empty surfaces on auto dashboards because “the spaces remind me of options I couldn’t afford.” Indeed, there is a thought process among new-car buyers that says more is always better. Power windows are better than roll-up windows, for example. Unless, of course, you have a convertible and it starts to rain, and you left your keys inside. These days, it’s tough to find good old roll-up windows on a car, and it’s not the fault of the majority of drivers. Blame new-car buyers.

Lately, I’ve found new cars have no keys at all, just a small remote-control that normally takes two button pushes to get the rear doors to unlock. Normally that is, unless you take too long to open the door, and the doors automatically lock again while you’re juggling the armful of stuff you want to put in the backseats. So you have to set down all your stuff and push the remote unlock buttons again. Again, blame the new car buyers.

Sometimes features new-car buyers want are required by the government to be installed in new cars, the latest to be back-up cameras, which will appear in all new cars after May 2018. Backup cameras have been found to be the best method out of many types of proximity alert buzzers and warnings to prevent children from being run over in driveways.

Other times auto suppliers rely on the government to force technology into new cars. I was contacted about 10 years ago to help a company that was creating a warning system called Strobe Alert that would notify drivers when an emergency vehicle was approaching. The premise was that as cars became quieter inside, drivers could no longer hear sirens from ambulances and firetrucks. In many cities emergency vehicles have small flashing strobe lights that change traffic lights to red, and when the Strobe Alert system detected these faint flashings, it would sound an alert inside your car. The strobe alert system, had it ever become mandatory, may have prevented accidents with emergency vehicles, but my concern is the more bells, dings, chimes and such we hear, the more saturated and disconnected we get from driving.

I think automatic feature mania began in the 1980s with car alarms. In dense cities such as New York, alarms quickly became no more than noise pollution, and eventually studies began to show very little evidence of alarms preventing car thefts. Yet today they still are demanded by new-car buyers and insurance companies. Insurance companies love alarms, likely because anything that drives a higher vehicle price means a higher premium. It’s free money to the insurance industry to push more gadgets in the arguable name of safety. Helen Keller explained insurance this way: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of mankind as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Obviously, new-car buyers think differently.

Specifically addressing traffic noise including car alarms, a recent story in the New York Times described in detail that our bodies respond to alert noises and alarms with higher heart rates, and ramped-up immune systems and brain functions including emotions and memory. Our bodies respond to traffic noise by “fight or flight” preparations with floods of hormones and adrenaline that we have no control over. Overabundance of alerts and alarms overload our own protective systems, eventually causing internal damage, said the story.

I sense the same stress reactions when I hear the beeps, buzzes and chimes for cross-traffic alerts, parking proximity alerts, as well as collision avoidance alerts with other cars and pedestrians, which sometimes flash red lights on instrument panels and in head-up displays on the insides of windshields of some new cars. Cadillac’s smart seats buzz your thighs instead of sounding an alert. It feels like you’re sitting on a muted smartphone that’s trying to alert you, which I believe merely transfers the stress of an alarm from one sense to another. Coming soon to new cars is a new generation of ultrasonic sensors for automatic braking for pedestrians, but before that, you’ll get a warning alert that will merely add to the buzzer symphony.

I think there are way too many alerts, warnings and beeps for any reasonable driver to pay attention to, although automakers tell us new-car buyers crave these things. That only reinforces my belief that new-car buyers are an odd breed, a minority that determines the equipment on all cars, yet thinks differently than you and me.