The Very Annoying Rental Car

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Rob Siegel

Six years ago, when technological goodies developed from research on self-driving cars—things like automatic braking, blind spot detection, and lane-keeping assist—were finding their way into passenger vehicles, I wrote an article about the double-edged sword of such technology. That is, on the one hand, we as vintage car owners and drivers love our old analog machines, and at times even brag about the absence of electronic nannies. But on the other hand, I’m painfully aware that, as I approach the Beatles-esque age of 64, my desire to drive for more than an hour at night and my ability to safely do so are both at an all-time low, and the number of times I’ve recently come close to lane-changing into someone who is driving my blind spot is alarming.

Last month, I felt these conflicting streams merge as I was completing the second of two consecutive 750-mile driving days home after attending a BMW 2002 event in Arkansas. When end-of-day rain hit in Connecticut, even though I was only two hours from home, if the car had a “Take me home, Jeeves” button on the dashboard, or even some benign auto safety feature, I would’ve mashed that puppy harder than the response button to the Jeopardy answer “He set up a factory in Ireland to build a gullwing car, then got charged with cocaine trafficking.” (Come on, you know it … Who is John Z. DeLorean?)

Over the years, I’ve mentioned this to a few friends, usually accompanied by a prognostication like “Whenever my wife and I get around to replacing our daily drivers, we’ll probably get one with these modern active safety features.” A surprising number of folks have said something like “Be careful what you wish for. My wife has lane assist in her car, and it drives me crazy.” Other than an anti-lock braking system (ABS), none of my cars are new enough to have “nannies.” OK, the ’99 BMW M Coupe does have disable-able stability control. But these days I don’t push the car hard enough to either make it light up or to delude myself into thinking I’m better than it and disable it.

With that as a backdrop, let me tell you the Eric Carle-like story of The Very Annoying Rental Car.

The week before I did the 3100-mile round-trip drive to Arkansas, my wife and I went to New Mexico to visit our middle son. We flew to Albuquerque and got a rental car for the one-hour-ish drive up to Santa Fe. I’d reserved a car with National, which does the “choose any car in the aisle” thing. Even when gas prices are low, I usually eschew the big SUVs and the trucks and opt for something of small to moderate size, as unless I’m hauling something or planning on driving offroad, I don’t need either the space or the all-wheel drive, and I certainly don’t need the feeling that I’m sitting four feet above the pavement in order to feel safe. Add to that five-dollar-a-gallon gas, and I’m happy to make a beeline to the smallest most fuel-efficient vehicle in the National aisle.

At the Albuquerque airport, this happened to be a late-model Toyota Corolla, sort of the Applebee’s of cars. You know what it’s going to be. It isn’t going to disgust you or blow you away. And, in fairness to the Corolla, they do have a good history of dashboard controls so simple that any grandmother can jump in one and figure out how to drive it, work the lights, turn on the heat, etc. (says the guy who thinks he’s still 18 but is now more than old enough to be a grandfather).

So, it’s 11:30 at night, I’m tired from a long day of travel, and it’s not over because there’s still about an hour’s drive to Santa Fe. This puts the drive on the outer edge of my envelope of comfort, but I’m not really concerned about it from a safety standpoint. What really wipes me out when night driving is stressful situations like cities with lots of lights, traffic, and rain. This drive is almost entirely interstate. The traffic at this hour is negligible. And the skies are clear. Regarding the car, I’m thinking that, as a mainstream Toyota product, the active safety features I’d written about six years ago have probably flowed down into even this lowly econobox, and considering the lateness of the hour, I’m thinking this is a good thing.

I fire up the Corolla, make sure the automatic lights are on, pull out onto I-25, and head north. I’m quickly reminded of the elevation changes between Albuquerque and Santa Fe and engage the cruise control to keep the car at speed on the hill climbs.

Almost immediately I feel the steering wheel fighting me. Then I realize it’s the lane-assist feature. It apparently engaged when I turned on the cruise control. And it’s horrible. It feels like the front wheels are alternately toe-ing in and out and yanking the car around, in spite of my doing a perfectly reasonable job of driving between the lane markings. I turn the cruise control off to disable the lane-assist. When I find myself slowing to 60 up a hill, I turn the cruise back on. The lane assist is still horrible. I turn it back off.

And there was another odd problem—the auto-dimming headlights. Both the manual and auto positions on the light stalk override the high beams if it senses there’s another car, either on my side of the highway or coming at me, anywhere in sight. Normally, this would’ve been just a minor annoyance—I don’t routinely blind other drivers by leaving the high beams on—but the low beams on the Corolla have such a hard illumination cut-off distance that there’s virtually no light out past 50 feet. And when the car overrode me, the only way to keep the high beams on was to set the lighting to manual, pull the stalk toward me as if to flash, and hold it in while steering. This wasn’t something I really wanted to do while interstate driving.

When the road was dead straight and empty, I took a moment, played with the controls, and figured out how to adjust the sensitivity of the lane-assist. All three settings were awful. I eventually figured out how to disable the lane assist while leaving the cruise control on.

That left only the problem of the auto-dimming headlights. I could not figure out how to override them. And when we arrived at the destination in Santa Fe—our son’s in-laws’ house on a gravel road—there was something about the roughness of the road and / or the reflectivity of the gravel that tripped the high beam sensor and would not allow me to turn the high beams on, even though there was no other car within sight. I had to pull in the high beam stalk and hold it there to find the driveway of the house.

Rob Siegel - The very annoying rental car - Toyota AHB switch annotated
The Corolla’s manual showing the switch for toggling the auto-dimming headlights. Rob Siegel

The following day, I looked up the auto-dimming issue online (easier than reading the manual), and learned that the Corolla, like apparently every other late-model Toyota, has Automatic High Beams (AHB), enabled by pushing the stalk forward and actuating a push button above your left knee, and presumably disabled the same way—not exactly my memory of “any grandmother can jump in a Corolla and drive it.” The gravel road issue apparently is a known limitation, as the official Toyota video explaining its use specifically says that the system may not work in certain circumstances including roads that are rough, unpaved, dirt, or gravel. I was surprised that I didn’t see a hail of posts regarding the low beam bulbs being so highly optimized not to cause discomfort to other drivers that they were nearly useless at night.

On the return drive to Albuquerque at o-dark-thirty a week later, I was able to manually toggle the high beams on and off. I still, however, elected to keep the lane-assist disabled, as the feeling that I was constantly fighting it for control drove me crazy.

So I’m not a big fan of the rented Corolla. I did, however, enjoy the fact that the little fuel-efficient car only used a single tank of gas on the trip.

None of this necessarily sways me one way or the other regarding whether our next car will have these active safety features. Hell, by the time we buy another car, odds are that, like ABS and air bags, all five-year-old used cars will have them. I will, however, be certain to test them out to see if they drive me crazy.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll just stick to driving in the daytime. And staying in the right lane. Or, if I’m in a hurry, the left.

***

Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.

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