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Friday, May 27, 2011

Are You Smarter Than My Car?

You know the TV show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"? I do well in answering the elementary school questions from that show. But after buying a new and extremely high-tech car, I am beginning to wonder whether I am in fact smarter than my new Ford Fusion hybrid.

This car is so intelligent it's almost scary. If I push the 'auto' button, the car will determine whether to turn the heater or the air conditioning on based on my preferred temperature and outside conditions; figure out how long the system needs to run, and whether to recirculate air or draw fresh air from outside. If my cell phone rings, I push a button on the steering wheel, say 'Answer" and I can talk to whomever is calling, hands-free. The only requirement is that the caller's number has to be in my cell phone's list of contacts, and I have to have the phone with me.

The car doesn't have an installed GPS navigation system, but it will give me verbal and written directions. I just say 'Directions' and the car asks for the city and state, followed by the address I want to get to. The directions are spoken as I approach each turn, and they also appear on the radio display that usually shows the artist and song title of the satellite radio stations I listen to.

My Fusion warns me with a colorful display that appears in the rear-view mirror if I get too close to something when backing up. If I don't respond to the display by stopping the car, the car beeps at me. If I am backing out of a parking place, the car warns me of approaching cross traffic, even if I can't see it. A small yellow dot appears on the side mirrors if a car is approaching in my blind spot on either side.

I can play music from my iPod and have the car categorize the songs for me according to type of music: jazz, classical and so on. I haven't mastered that yet. I'll probably have my teenage daughter set that up, as she is a whiz at technology.

The owner's manual is some 300 pages long. I keep it on my nightstand and read a few pages before going to bed. I have to confess, I have never read a car owner's manual so thoroughly. And still, I had to pull over one day to peer at all the buttons on the control panel so I could figure out how to turn off the fan.

There isn't just one manual with this car; there are three. The biggest covers everything: radio, lights, blind-spot detection system, safety, tires, towing, everything. The satellite radio has a brief guide; and there is one for the on-board Sync system, which provides all the information I could ever want. I can even ask the car to find a certain type of business for me. If I'm driving around in an unfamiliar area and get a yen for a fresh doughnut, I can tell the car to find doughnut shops in whatever city I want, as well as how to get there. I can get current weather conditions in Seattle, Chicago, Miami or any major city. I can get current sports scores or market reports, all by asking. Everything is voice-activated using a small microphone on the visor.

One thing this car can't do is park itself, although there are some that can take over the hassle of parallel parking by doing it themselves, while the driver sits up front, hands off the steering wheel.

The only downside I see to all of this technology is the distraction factor. My new car is a hybrid, and the electronic display offers a wealth of information. Whereas a typical car has a speedometer, odometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, my car offers four levels of information to be displayed. I am using the next-to-simplest, and still, I can see at a glance the charge on the hybrid battery and whether it is increasing or decreasing, current miles per gallon, the number of miles until the gas tank is empty, fuel level and efficiency (a new, green leaf grows as the mpg increases). Keeping track of all this information can cause me to take my eyes off the road, and it is easy to be distracted.

I am not a techno-phobe, and I think it's really amazing how much technology Ford has built into this car. But I have to wonder how long it will be before cars really are smarter than their drivers.