Along with a new shoulder, I acquired a new car. Unfortunately, they did not come as a buy one, get one free duo. In a nice Catch-22, I had partially worn out my old shoulder by driving a sticky stick shift for 30 years. After the surgery to replace the shoulder, I was physically unable to drive a manual transmission and psychologically unprepared to grind my new shoulder to shreds doing so and thus ended up with a car sporting an automatic. And much else.
Decades ago, the latest time I purchased a car, the consumer could pick and choose whatever options she wanted. Now cars come with packages. The car I liked was available in two packages. Package one was what is referred to as basic. I’ll say. The upholstery was a shiny metallic-looking silver…a fabric not seen since the very early days of Star Trek. Hideous is not too strong a word. In my dotage, especially during the winters of my dotage, I have become extremely fond of heated car seats. There was a time I would have scoffed at someone so jaded that derrière heating was a deal breaker. My scoffing days are over. Not only do I want my seat heated, I want that seat to move electrically. The “basic” model did not come with these features. I’m not sure the basic model came with a windshield. My choice was to settle for this (highly undesirable) model or move up to package number two. Package number two included a large inventory of what my friend Reece calls terminal fanciness. I knew I was way past my teachable moment when the salesman took twenty minutes to explain how to interface my phone with the screen on the dash. Let me back up a minute here to say if Henry Ford intended for cars to come with elaborate digital screens that work with your iPhone, he would have put them in from the get-go. Cars are supposed to come with little round gauges that indicate when you need to add gas or oil or coolant. This car has a feature that turns the engine off every time I stop, with two devices designed to keep me in my lane even if I don’t want to stay there, with a neon green arc to let me know I’m driving economically, and an information button that, ironically, I can’t figure out how to get information from.
Being a savvy, not to mention desperate consumer, I broke down and got out the owner’s manual. There is a reason people are reluctant to read owner’s manual and here it is: the owner’s manual does not tell the owner what she wants to know. There are 30 — count ‘em, 30 — pages on how to hook up the seat belts. I am not making this up. An additional twenty-five pages are devoted to the air bags. Air bags are great. Air bags are an important advance in auto safety. Air bags are, basically, ballistic bags full of—wait for it—-air. The average consumer (me) does not need to know the exact location of all fifteen or twenty or three hundred air bags scattered throughout my vehicle. They are sort of like defense lawyers. I hope never to need one but it’s a comfort to know they’re there if I do. Guidance on the really important stuff, like how to get the radio station I want, is glaring in its absence. Dozens of icons pop up, seemingly randomly. I realize the car is trying to tell me something. I just don’t have a clue what the message is supposed to be and furthermore don’t have a clue how to find out. The salesman said something about an on-line tutorial. Talk about a deal breaker. There is desperation and then there is desperation. It’s just wrong that car manufacturers have crammed so many multi-function keys into the panel that the new car owner is required to use a computer, where the concept of too many multi-function keys was invented.
When I’m driving, the most important thing, right after getting the radio station I want, is to know where I’m going. My phone, which is the size of a deck of cards, has a GPS. My iPad, which is smaller than a sheet of paper, has a GPS. My new car, which barely fits in the garage, may or may not have a GPS. I don’t know and the owner’s manual isn’t telling. There is a section on navigation. This sounded very promising. The difference between sounding promising and actually being promising is, as it turns out, the same as between wanting to know where you are and actually being able to pinpoint your location in the universe. I would be happy if it just had that little blue dot feature that tells me where I am. Won’t tell me where I’m going but if I know where I am I can usually figure that out. Which is more than I can say for the car.