Not ready for self-driving cars | ParkRecord.com

Not ready for self-driving cars

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By Tom Clyde
Park Record columnist

I traded cars a few months ago. The old one was a criminal VW diesel. I absolutely loved it. It was fun to drive, got 50 miles to a gallon, and if that weren't enough, it was paid for.

But it had deep secrets. Apparently when connected to the emissions testing equipment at EPA, it was clean as a choir boy. Then when they unplugged it, it belched soot like a container ship. VW got busted. The Feds made them buy the cars back. So in December, I sold it back to VW for a price that was more than fair, and they sent it off to the crusher.

As an aside, I don't expect we will be seeing that kind of enforcement of environmental regulations for a while.

Anyway, armed with a fat check and more than a little indignation that those crafty Germans had hoodwinked the system — for seven years — I decided to buy something different. I now have a Subaru; like you, and you, and you, too. Turns out the decision to get four-wheel drive this winter was pure genius. It's been great. The Subaru is a nice car, and I splurged on it a bit.

And then, Obama hacked my car. It all stopped working one morning. I got in and pushed the magic button and, instead of just firing up, it all went to pieces.

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The fact is, the Subaru is larded up with every imaginable option. There is more electronic stuff on the car than the Apollo moon landing mission. It's not self-driving, but comes pretty close. It knows when I drift across the lane marking. It alerts me if there is a car in my blind spot. It's supposed to be able to slam on the brakes if a deer runs in front of me (which I think would be a bit unnerving, but have not had it happen yet). It tells me there is a traffic jam ahead when there isn't another vehicle within a mile. The dealer's "electronics concierge," a 20-something girl with hair the color of a chemical spill and fishing lures in her nose, tried to explain it all. She was very good, and patient, but it was a lot to absorb. I ended up recruiting my sister's grandson to set it so the doors would all unlock at the same time.

Everything in my experience said, "get the stripped down model, you'll never figure this stuff out." But the deluxe model had one feature that could not be denied. The garage door opener is built into the mirror. I have a collection of them on the visor, and now, they are all built in. Suddenly, heated seats, keyless entry and built-in garage door openers have become as necessary as windshield wipers.

And then, Obama hacked my car. It all stopped working one morning. I got in and pushed the magic button and, instead of just firing up, it all went to pieces. I got a three-minute PowerPoint presentation on the dashboard telling me that numerous meaningless acronyms weren't working. After each slide, bells rang and a warning light on the dash would come on. It kept going, lighting things up one by one, until at the end, the dash was lit up like Temple Square on Christmas Eve. And then the engine started up and I drove away, trying to ignore the laser light show in front of me.

Then I started getting emails from the car. At first they were quite polite. "We've noticed that there are some malfunction codes. You should get that checked at your dealer." But there was snow to plow, roofs to shovel and skiing to be done. After a few days, the emails from the car became more pointed. When it finally said, "You idiot, get this death trap to a dealer immediately," I took it in.

The Subaru dealer is not like a normal mechanic's shop. It's clean as a surgical suite. The waiting room is a very pleasant café. Everybody speaks in full sentences. I didn't know what to make of it. After a couple of hours, the service advisor told me that I couldn't drive the car. They gave me a loaner and sent me home.

After 10 days, it's all good as new. The log of what they did is revealing. They tested one electronic gizmo after another, and replaced a long list of what I fear were very expensive parts (let's hear it for warranties!). And then, the very last thing on the list said, "discovered corroded electrical connection on wheel sensor." They replaced the sensor, but only because, after all they had done, simply cleaning off the gunk and tightening the loose wire would have been too embarrassing. So, just like my 75-year-old tractors, every electrical problem comes down to a bad ground.

There's a lot of hype about self-driving cars. I'm not quite ready to let a loose wire covered with road salt drive me off a cliff just yet.

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.