The Relentless Overcomplication Of Everything.

So, I was in Milton Keynes in a new-generation C-Class. The Buckinghamshire “New Town” is essentially a controlled experiment in post-war urban planning which went viral, overcame its creators and expanded uncontrollably in every direction. It now resembles one of my earlier flirtations with Sim City- one of those times when I was so dissatisfied with my creation that I didn’t bother clicking “save game”.
The layout of this bleak urban sprawl is composed entirely of roundabouts linked by straight lines. It’s not easy to keep up a sustained average speed here, driving in traffic is made up of a series of surges, heaves and lunges strung together into a despicably inelegant ballet. The drivers are, by and large, very miserable and extremely assertive. You can’t afford to hesitate before making your move, so it pays to be in a car with lots of low-down grunt and a responsive nine-speed transmission. This C-Class diesel has both of those attributes in its favour, so you’d think that would be job done, wouldn’t you?
You’d think so. But it turns out that, as is so often the case, electronic intervention means you can’t have your cake and eat it. I’m pretty sure you could, once….

In my old, manual cars I can decide for my self exactly what the car does, by simply pressing harder on whichever of the three pedals best serve my whim at the time. On a roundabout this would typically involve a big kick of throttle then some deft clutchwork to throw 3000rpm at the tarmac without standing still while quickly serving up hot tyre soup. On most modern automatics you can do pretty well, too. Ramming the loud pedal to the floor and beyond the kickdown button usually clues the engine up as to what you want of it, even moreso if Sports Mode is engaged.
The thing is, this C-Class has five modes, and you have to access them via a menu with a shortcut on the centre console. And those modes have features and characteristics which are specific and over-ruling. My whole reason for this post stems from my folly in attempting to swiftly enter a roundabout with the car set on the “ECO” mode which I had engaged in a fit of sudden planet-preservation for the motorway section of today’s journey. I set it and then forgot it, and then, when I needed to accelerate in a bit of a hurry, I couldn’t.
There was, literally, nothing there at all. Mashing the accelerator was met with indifference and confusion, and eventually a half-hearted shrug of acceleration which earned me a full lights and horns concert from one of the local savages who wasn’t about to slow down for anybody. Look, seriously, ECO or not, when I ask for full power, I want full power. Got me?
When I picked the car up it was in SPORTS+ mode which, as far as I could see, wouldn’t let me go beyond fourth gear, but was happy to let me sit at 26mph in traffic with 3000rpm on the tach. Stupid. It obviously expected me to suddenly lash out and go on an overtaking rampage, but I wasn’t going to. To be fair, you can go deeper into the menu system and customise all these modes. You can tell the car how to prioritise things like power, steering assistance and climate control against economy, but if you go all out for green-ness you kiss goodbye to any chance of help when you need to get out of somebody’s way in a hurry. I put it to you that this is Stupid.
If the car can do all this stuff, if it can use power generated under braking to recharge the battery, if it can cut power assistance to the steering and air conditioning where possible in the interest of economy, why can’t it have the common sense to figure out when doing so is appropriate? Summoning up full fury like I did ought to bloody well over-ride ECO and put me straight in “Get me the fuck outa here” mode until I start being a bit more moderate.
If I’m setting out on a journey I don’t want to decide whether I’m going to be Sporty, or Sporty Plus, or Comfy or Economical. I want an unspecified mixture depending on my mood at the time. I want the car to do what I want it to do, when I want it. And then when I don’t want anything in particular, then it can use its own imagination and do what it thinks is best.
How hard can that be?
(All images Chris Haining / Hooniverse except for Milton Keynes map which appeared during a Google search)

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13 responses to “The Relentless Overcomplication Of Everything.”

  1. Gee Nick Avatar
    Gee Nick

    A certain amount of pedal pressure should indicate intent, but all that leads to is a 1st-4th lockout these days.

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    Only nine speeds in the transmission? Well, there’s your problem right there.

    1. Guest Avatar

      Wow. I knew DAFs had rubber belt CVTs, but I wasn’t quite expecting them to be that similar to a snowmobile…

      I bet Bombardier even has a part number for those belts!

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        Oh, if only they were a commonly available size. I have to get replacements through the DAF Owners Club (UK).

  3. Letstakeawalk Avatar

    My Honda CR-Z has three simple buttons so that I can choose “Sport (fun)”, “Normal (meh)”, or “Eco (slow down there, Grandma, your Dilaudid has kicked in)”.
    Regardless of which mode I’m in, when the gas pedal hits the carpet, they all revert to full throttle. It’s a pretty nice system, and it makes sense to me.

  4. Sjalabais Avatar

    That sounds almost like a pre-digital, sort of 80’s dumb version of the future. The good thing about it would be that the pendulum needs to swing both ways. If Mercedes (and their trusty followers) manages to irritate enough people with a system like that, it will create a desire for more powerful, more interventionist, more brain-controlled cars. Good.
    As an anecdote, my mother-in-law test drove her Auris from Toyota over a weekend and went back, telling them that there’s no way she would be buying this dead fish. The Toyota guys explained the driving modes to her, again, and just set the car in sport. She could test drive it for another two days. She bought it.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Yep, so long as it has the nous to realise when you’re in a lower gear than you need to be in, Sport’s the only mode you need.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        I’m not even sure if she has learned to adjust the modes, you probably guessed by experience and prejudice that she is prone to drive under the speed limit, on the wrong side of the road and with a lack of smoothness that is designed to destroy small blood vessels in the brains of son-in-laws.

      2. Manic_King Avatar

        You sure some sandal wearing eco biz man hasn’t already adjusted ECO mode to “never accept WOT” on that exact car? If so, MB is prolly expecting you to take an hour and adjust presets to your taste and when driving just switch between them. Btw. can you create your own additional mode presets?

  5. Alff Avatar

    It sounds as if the system has not gone far enough to interpret driver intent and desires. I would suggest the addition of two devices – one to temporarily decouple engine and drivetrain and another to allow the driver to manually select from preset gear ratios.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      There is, fortunately, a manual override via paddles. Even better, this time placed in such a way as I don’t swap cogs involuntarily with one of my knees.

  6. Tiller188 Avatar

    Yeah, the “I’m pushing on the throttle but it’s deciding not to give me any more power” situation is kind of a nightmare scenario for me. Forget it, car — I control the vertical, I control the horizontal. Well-implemented ABS and traction control are fine (I have no illusions of being a good enough driver to be better than they are), but other than that I’d rather know that the car is going to do what I ask, or at the minimum be consistent in its responses to various inputs. I’m also perfectly capable of deciding for myself when the headlights and windshield wipers should be on or off, thanks. With the various new-car technologies being introduced, I find myself replaying this clip in my head more and more often (relevant portion is the first ~10 seconds from link):
    I feel a bit of a poser for that, really, considering my MY2011 Subaru is far from all-mechanical purity, but with 3 pedals and manual (or anyway, user-controlled — motorized windows are nice) everything-that-matters, it’s at least not throwing many surprises my way.

  7. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    i think a big part of this is fuel economy requirements. by engineering in several different drive modes and having it default to the most economical one, you can pass the tests, get a big MPG number on the Monroney, and still tell your customers that they’re getting something that can be sporty.
    i think that’s kind of perfect: most drivers aren’t going to have much need for any sort of “sport mode”, and the collective of the models will consequently use less fuel. for those of us who like to drive like dicks, it’ll be a pain and we’ll bitch about the good old days, but come on. nobody builds cars for us anymore anyway.