The air bag: Better safe than sorry with reversing tech

Reversing cameras are going to be required on all vehicles sold in the United States by 2018.

I can’t be the only car enthusiast to have inherited a love of fast things from a parent or relative. Although in my case, speed didn’t always figure into it. At one point, my father’s mania focused entirely on Volvo 240s. Later, the boxy Swedes gave way to an actual sports coupé, a red Volvo P1800 that sadly I never got to drive. There was also a (arguably better looking) P1800ES estate in light metallic blue that was essentially a parts car – I’m told it met its demise as a prop in a Brendan Fraser movie. Eventually, my father had a late 1970s Ford Ranchero GT.

My dad’s current crop of vehicles includes a bare-bones commercial van, a Volkswagen Jetta TDI with rather youthful rims, and a 1991 Jeep Grand Cherokee that reeks of cigar smoke and possesses the least impressive V8 engine I have ever encountered.

But let me back up, because the Jeep’s most pressing deficiency isn’t its lack of power (there may well be something wrong with it – it has been rebuilt at least once), but rather its complete lack of a rear-view mirror. Well, the car does have a rear-view mirror, it’s just sitting on the back seat.

Reversing cameras are going to be required on all vehicles sold in the United States by 2018. We’re already seeing them in more and more affordable cars in the UAE. But what’s more practical – a complicated digital video system, or a few bits of plastic and glass sealed (with a bit of luck) to the windscreen? I suppose that’s a false dichotomy, because no manufacturer is talking about taking mirrors out of cars. Except maybe Google, because its autonomous cars don’t offer steering wheels or brake pedals, either.

Technology can be impressive, I’m not denying it. Jeep’s current Pentastar V6 is a modern miracle of power and efficiency compared to my dad’s sluggardly old V8. Meanwhile, Bugatti just unleashed a 1,500hp hypercar that does 0 to 100kph in … nevermind, it has already gone. ABS and ESP save lives, and so will autonomous driving, if the lawyers can sort out the liability issues.

But the steady trickle of new, high-tech features into automotive manufacturing often falls flat in the implementation. Partly, this is because carmakers have epically long lead times, which is why up until a few years ago, before they became entirely passé, you would still see 30GB hard drives in brand-new cars. In case you’re a total Luddite, the 12-year-old sitting opposite you at Fat Burger probably has more memory in their smartphone than that. And assuming your daily driver even has a camera, the kid’s phone probably has a superior one of those as well.

Our expectations of tech, born in the consumer-electronics world, are slow to be realised in the auto­motive sector. This was evident the day after borrowing my dad’s Jeep, when I took the wheel of a 2012 Toyota Prius. Like many vehicles equipped with a reversing cam, this Prius emits a slightly plaintive beeping noise while reversing. With the camera active, the text overlaid across the bottom of the navigation screen says something like: “Be aware of your surroundings” – advice I wish more drivers would heed. The sound the Prius makes in reverse is the auditory equivalent of that same admonition, reminding drivers to use their mirrors and, better yet, their wits. The problem is that this particular sound brings me to my wit’s end.

Toyota knows, I’m sure, that we’re drawn to tiny screens like moths to the flame. The Prius is simply reminding us to look up from time to time. And that’s the rub – this is an anti-distraction device that is, ultimately, rather distracting. Sure, some cars use sensors to warn when you’re a hair’s breadth from some immovable object. Not so the Prius: it makes the sound of a dump truck reversing even if you’re miles from the nearest obstacle. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

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