Friday, August 13, 2010

Not An Option

When you look at your car today, it's almost hard to believe its ancestor was the Model T that Henry Ford first mass produced in the 1908. Yes, it has four tires, a steering wheel and an engine. Beyond those basic elements, however, nearly everything else about it has changed, from the styling to the color palette to the components that make it run. In many cases the advances are major, like the new hybrid drives that blend battery and gas powered propulsion systems. In other ways they are minor, such as the size and shape of the gas pedal. But taken in total, what you're driving today has come a long way since you the time when you could get it in any color as long as it was black.

In fact, these days color is just one of the bewildering array of options that allow you to customize your vehicle to be your very own dream machine. Go the web site for any manufacturer and you will be able to point and click your way through menu after menu allowing you to specify just about every facet of the car. You can pick the material that the seats are made of, the entertainment system you prefer, even the type of shift knob installed.
All of these are most assuredly advances, though some are more successful than others. Take automatic seat belts. It's a given that belts save lives, as long as you wear them. Still, some riders didn't buy that logic, were lazy or didn't want the belt to crease their outfits. And so back in the seventies, Volkswagen led the charge by being the first manufacturer to put automatic belts in the Rabbit. All the others followed, helped along by government mandates requiring them. Most people hated the system, however, getting strangled at least once by the devices. It took until airbags were perfected, and manufacturers were given a choice between one or the other that they died a quick death, much to relief of most of us.

And so it was with other signs of progress. Hideaway headlights seemed like a good idea. So did CB Radios in every car. But once they passed their novelty phase, the public voted with its wallet, ordering less and less of both until it made no economic sense to offer them at the dealership.
This past month brought word that yet another idea that made sense to someone is going the way of the dodo. Volvo, long touting itself as one of the safest cars son the road, was a leader with such advances as side impact airbags, three point seat belts and a collapsible steering column. In 2007, it thought it was advancing the state-of-the-art by offering a $550 option package that included an electronic key fob that would tell you if you had indeed locked the car once you walked away. But when you came back, it went one better: it included a feature called "Intruder Detector" that told you if someone was lurking in the back seat waiting to ambush you.

Created by an engineer who had seen one too many slasher movies, the system featured a heartbeat detector that allowed the user to check their vehicle before they entered it. If the key fob sported a flashing light, it meant that there was man crouched in the backseat, wearing a ski mask and carrying a machete. Of course, it could also mean that there was a kitten locked in the car, but which was the more likely possibility?
Pussy cat or ax murderer, the need for this particular piece of technology just didn't resonate with the public. And so for the 2011 model year, the intruder detector is no longer an option. You can get pedestrian detection, blind-spot alerts and active cruise control, among others. But you'll have to look in your backseat for escaped mental patients yourself.

It just goes to show that just because "they" can invent it doesn't mean that "we" will come. And in the real world, they are actually very few reported cases of this particular hazard having any basis in reality. Still, I guess you can't blame them for trying. After all, fear is a powerful motivator, and there's no telling who might buy into it. In that vein, perhaps there's a market for the "Is the upstairs extension the one making the call?" detector, which would sooth babysitters' minds the world over.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants fewer options, not more. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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