Hot Wheels

The world of automobiles is alive with technology

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

john-dubrul-adjust-cmykJohn DuBrul III, vice president of The Automaster, drives a Mercedes-Benz, one of four franchises his company has. The others are BMW, Honda, and Cooper MINI. “ Cars have a lot of technology now: cruise control, stopping technology, or they at least warn you if an object is in front of you.”
Courtesy of The Automaster

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), new and emerging vehicle safety technologies are capable of eliminating 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error. This is particularly important now, as fatalities from traffic incidents are on the rise nationwide. Certainly, we’ve seen a bump this year in Vermont.

bill_shearerBill Shearer, the president of Shearer Automotive, has franchises for Acura, Audi, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Honda, and Volkswagen. “Vermont has the highest percentage of unpaved roads in the United States,” he said. “We have a machine that you can drive in and use to check your alignment.”
Courtesy of Shearer Automotive

The strange but good news is that the number of traffic deaths altogether is much lower than they were 10 years ago, largely because of technology like stability controls and anti-lock brakes, and greater use of seatbelts. We asked three automobile dealers about this seeming conflict and the burgeoning of technology innovations in general.

Our mini-panel consisted of (in alphabetical order) John DuBrul III, son of Jack DuBrul, the founder of The Automaster in Shelburne, with Honda, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and MINI franchises; Scott Foster, vice president of Foster Motors in Middlebury, with Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and RAM franchises; and Bill Shearer, president of Shearer Automotive, with Acura, Audi, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Honda, and Volkswagen franchises.

scott_fosterScott Foster is vice president of Foster Motors in Middlebury, with Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and RAM franchises. He’s pictured programming a Key Sense Smart Key for a Chrysler Pacifica minivan. It allows parents to set the maximum speed and the radio volume, and won’t play the radio unless the seat belts are hooked, among other things.
Courtesy of Foster Motors

“The traffic fatality numbers would be so much better if we didn’t have to throw in the distracted driving issue, which is just screwing things up,” said DuBrul. “Between that and drugs, we’ve got more issues on the road than we ever did.”

Shearer concurs. “As somebody put it to me,” he said, ‘Some people can multitask better than others.’ So with technology, it’s sort of upped the bar.”

We asked their opinions on the effect of lower gasoline prices. Shearer maintained that everybody’s forgotten when gas jumped up to $4 a gallon about nine years ago. “Right now, there’s a big surge in truck and SUV purchases,” he said, adding, “At the same time, there’s also a surge in small cars and electric vehicles.” Electric and hybrid are of more interest than small for the sake of small, he said, due to the safety factor.

SUV crossovers are selling great at The Automaster, according to DuBrul, “because gas is cheap. But the pitch is on hard for electric. All manufacturers are into it.”

Foster Motors just started selling a plug-in hybrid, the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. “It’s a new thing for us. They’re vehicles for people who don’t drive every day; they plug it in every night, and with a 30-mile commute back and forth, it runs on batteries all day.” The thing about plugin hybrids, especially in Vermont, Foster said, is that the state is cold, and the plug-in hybrid has electric, but can slip over to a gasoline engine so you can drive farther.

All three indicated they’d like all cars to have tech that shuts off text when anyone’s driving.

They also agreed that fully autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles are years away — as many as 10 or more — but all the manufacturers are hot on the trail of technologies that can make driving better and safer.

Safety, especially, is important.

Foster said that a lot of the Jeep Eagles have blind-spot technology coming. “And rear cameras, collision warning, adaptive cruise where it follows a car at whatever speed the car in front of it is going, and lane departure warnings.”

Regarding semi-autonomous driving, which lets your car handle steering and braking on the highway (under certain conditions, such as on highways at high speed, with an alert driver), Foster doesn’t think it will be quickly adopted. “I think I just read that 90 percent of the people don’t want to get in cars that are driving themselves.

DuBrul, who drives a Mercedes, agrees that it’s kind of unnerving having the car drive for you, “because inherently you don’t want to trust it, but as you become more confident, it becomes a great tool. I’ve driven all the way down 22A to New York and have hardly had to touch the controls. It’s pretty cool. And you can take your hands off the wheel for up to 10 seconds at a time.” On major roads, he cautions. “Highways are easy.”

It still requires an alert driver, he adds, because you have to be aware if you’re using the systems or not, and it’s pretty easy to become distracted. As for the advent of autonomous vehicles, “The roads, for example, are going to have to be addressed. A lot of the current technology uses the lines on the road, so they have to be in good shape. And a lot of roads in Vermont aren’t.”

Shearer’s Audi Q7 SUV has “a lot of technology in it, like a braking system, and it works very well, especially when you get too close,” he said. “On the Interstate, it will keep you 10 car lengths, and if cruise control is set on 65, if a car parked on the side of the road pulls out abruptly, or as you’re approaching another car from behind, even if that car does a panic stop, it’ll stop the car. I use it daily.”

We asked about self-parking, which is becoming a popular upscale option. “That’s available on some models,” said Shearer, who admits he sees a downside to it: “What happens when it breaks? It’s kind of like a convertible: What happens if the top is stuck down or halfway up?”

DuBrul has been learning about vehicle-to-vehicle technology, which will be crucial whenever fully autonomous vehicles become a reality.

“Connectivity?” Foster asked. “They talk about distracted driving, and sometimes I think with all this tech, it’s almost too much. There’s an awful lot, and you’re trying to do things so you distract the driver. There are a lot of hands-free things you can do, but you’re still paying attention to something other than driving. It can get people distracted. When do we say enough is enough?”