Wednesday, January 07, 2015

[Cars] Infuriating Excellence

Many years ago sci-fi author and technologist Jerry Pournelle coined the phrase "infuriatingly excellent" to describe a terrific piece of technology that was marred by some sort of inexplicable bug or, more likely, a misguided design feature. I would say infuriatingly excellent describes my 2014 Acura TL to a tee.

We have previously discussed the stupefying bizarreness of my car's keyless ignition system. It works like a dream, but if you lose the fob you are in a world of trouble. It's just expensive and slightly annoying if your are close to home, but if you are roadtripping far from a dealership you are in a world of pain and suffering, as there is no way to enter or drive your car with the fob. At that point you are going to have to go in search of rental car just to get you in a position where you can get a replacement key, and you better hope you are not leaving your (now bricked) car somewhere where it will get towed. Bottom line -- I could easily see a situation where you drop two grand or more. For losing you key.

Here's how: I am hundreds of miles from home or the nearest Acura dealer. I park in the lot a some beach or park, and then I lose my key fob. I cannot enter my car at that point. And even if I could I cannot start it. I can't keep spare fobs around because the keyless entry system only allows two to be in existence at any time and if they are in proximity to the car it will be effectively unlocked. At that point I am looking to rent a car, drive home, get my backup fob, drive back, only to discover my car has been towed for parking overnight where I shouldn't have. Then once finally retrieving my car (hopefully undamaged) then driving to the Acura dealer and ordering a new fob at a cost of about $400. Between fines, rental fees, and replacements I figure that would be about two or three grand. The life disruption is just a bonus.

That said, by careful planning, clever storage of the backup fob, and timely disabling of the keyless system I could protect myself from this. But why should I have to do this on a premium vehicle. Lesser brands have standard key backups. In 30 years of driving Toyotas I never worried about this because I could have a dozen keys made for a few bucks and always have one in my wallet.

As long as I have the fob the system works great. It's a terrific convenience not to have to dig in my pocket (and I suppose if I were a woman with a purse it would be an even greater convenience). It's excellent, but if I ever lose that fob, "infuriating" will be an understatement.

Then there are the little things about the electronics setup that are maddening.
  • The standard XM radio interface is lame -- it will display the station or the song info, but not both. My cheap little external unit I used in my previous two cars displayed more than that. You can get the AV display to show all the info but it reserves half the screen for the menu which is useless while you are driving. and it is awkward, and a bit laggy, to change stations.
  • You also can't set AV display to default to the radio. It always tries to start up to the live navigation map, and it always forces you to click through a disclaimer message telling you not to drive off a bridge even if the nav system tells you to. Always. Every time you start the car. Pull up a to a gas station, kill the engine, fill up on gas, then start the car -- you will have to click through the disclaimer. If you don't click the disclaimer in a certain amount of time the AV display clicks off. If I own this car as long as my previous ones I conservatively estimate I will have to click through this message on the order of 15,000 times.
  • The Nav system itself is good once you get an address entered, but getting an address entered is a crap shoot. You start by entering the name of the street -- not the street address, just the name of the street, and you better get it exactly right If you just enter "Main St" when you needed "South Main St" or "S Main" or "Main Street" you may have problem. Google and Microsoft have astoundingly flexible and forgiving interfaces for their maps. This interface behaves like a brain-damaged lookup from the early 90s internet.
  • The phone interface seems to work well; it reads my texts to me and answers voice calls properly and handles bluetooth flawlessly, but it will not import my contacts from my phone for some reason, so making calls via the voice interface is out unless I can figure out why it doesn't work. May have to do with Windows phone. I have never needed to do that anyway. I may just have to hand enter a few key numbers just in case.
All in all, it seems to be damning evidence that the value added by all this technology is counterbalanced by the frustration.

Now, ‘14 TL was the last year for the TL. It's been around a while, which is a selling point to me as it is well know car model have bugs and reliability issues worked out for the course of their model run. But it also may mean the the tech is out of date too and it's possible most of these problems are solved on newer models.

And I have to say the when it comes to actual driving, the TL is a flawless. The six-cylinder engine is smooth and strong in every situation, the transmission shifts are hardly noticeable. IT handles so well that I doubt an average driver like me would ever come close to finding a point where it was out of control. Unlike the pillowy rides of my previous Camrys, you can feel the bumps on the roads, but they do not jar you. It's truly a sweet, sweet, driving car. Over the road it is pretty close to flawless.

I just need to come to terms with the tricky electronics. Until Ii do, I would have to say given the opportunity to buy a different car, I would. It's possible this will be the first time in my life I don't keep a car until it falls apart. We'll see.

And with that I shall stop. Over the past three months it seems like I've written way too much about this. Isn't it just like me to struggle getting a few paragraphs of fiction written, but write a small novella's worth of gripes about my car? I'm done now. Until something goes wrong. Then I shall rail like nobody's business.