A blind date with new technology: the rental car

By Carolyn Dale- February 2016

Bleary from hours in a jet at high altitudes and lack of sleep, disoriented by time change, and plunked into an unfamiliar climate, I'm now ready to meet my blind date.

This will really be a blind date because I was only able to specify how much money I'd spend, and whether my match should be compact, or something a little bigger, like a four-door. The guy at the rental desk hands me papers, points out my model across the parking lot, and reminds me to check it for dents.

Dents are the least of my concerns. I'm worried about operating this unfamiliar machine because with technological gizmos and brand-specific nuances, no two car models in the universe are similar, anymore. A rental car's unique operating procedures have come to dwarf the other mysteries of travel.

Even back at home, a significant percentage of drivers don't make full use of the technological capabilities of their new cars. A J.D. Power study from last August found that three months after buying a car, one-fifth of new owners still had never used half of the thirty-three technology features measured in the report. The study urged sales staff to become teachers and train their new-car buyers, lest some features go forever unused.

But with a rental, you have two minutes to get acquainted with the vehicle all on your own, and who doesn't know that sinking feeling? It's like when a friend asks you to nuke something in their microwave, and the only familiar button is "Popcorn."

As for cars my Travel Companion and I have rented recently, few settings have been universal or intuitive, so we don't leave the lot without a printed operating manual, even if it's five hundred pages and barely fits into what we used to call the glove box. It also helps to arrange the first driving date during daylight, preferably on a sunny day. Otherwise, the mysteries begin within the first mile.

Windshield wipers. These minuscule controls are often slipped into streamlined little niches on the turn signal, mixed inextricably with the headlight settings. This usually means using both the lights and wipers, or neither, as you can't distinguish between the controls in the dark. Hence, one time we drove through a clear, starry night with the headlines beaming brightly—and the windshield wipers beating furiously all the way. At least they swept off some of the big bugs zooming in.

Music options. The radio can be anything from a regular AM/FM unit to Sirius satellite feeds, to the car's own version of Bluetooth, or a Hydra-headed Space X communicator. OK, that last one is made up, but the simple, intuitively functional CD players are now gone from thirty percent of new cars. I used to pack along some calming music to help during frantic urban driving or long desert stretches. Now when I try to turn on the radio in the rental car, I often get a view of the pavement behind us.

The rear-view TV screen. What a powerful tool! We are mesmerized and watch it devotedly all the time it is on. Then it turns off, and we stare at the blank space; that’s a lot of real estate sitting there gray and inert. (Thank goodness it’s not continuously beaming advertisements.) But, why doesn’t it switch to a camera underneath the car, or one overhead? I’d love to watch the clouds go by, without craning my neck. Really, it’s such a hassle to look out the window.

GPS. This actually stands for Gratuitous Post-rental Spying. The car company knows where its beloved minion is at all times, on which roads it is driving, and how fast it is going. I imagine that in their idle moments, the rental staff tunes in to watch us through the dashboard video as we fumble for the windshield wipers, tune in Mars on the satellite feed, or accidentally turn on cruise control.

Cruise control. The master button can be anywhere within arm's length of the driver, but I especially enjoyed a recent model where the button was next to the ones for lowering the windows. But I guess that makes some sense, because if you're driving fast enough to want cruise control, you'll probably want the windows up. If they're down, at least you won't need to find the controls for the air conditioning.

Voice-activated systems. We all know those times when we really need advice from Siri, Google, or Alexa, but voice devices are powerful distractions in their own way. Drivers' minds typically stay off task for fifteen to nearly thirty seconds after speaking with a digital assistant, according to a study last fall by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. And that gap came after asking, "Siri, where's the gas cap on an Altima?" and listening to the answer. In traffic terms, a lot can happen in thirty-plus seconds.

Gas caps. You think you've got it covered when you pull into the filling station and remember which side of the car the gas cap is on. But then you have to negotiate the pump handle past the new airlock that prevents fumes from leaking out, as well as the gas from going in. We created An Environmental Incident one time by believing the pump spout was inserted far enough. The gas pump thought so too, for it splashed gasoline all over the pavement. The station staff responded politely, bringing kitty litter, cloths, cleaning solutions and a clipboard with a list of procedures to follow. I was relieved that they didn’t put on respirators, but I suspect The Incident had to be reported to pollution authorities. At least our key fob didn't get wet, and we could make a getaway.

Key fobs. These devices embody a conundrum. They cannot ever get wet, or they won’t work, and it's costly to replace them. Yet people encounter water on vacation trips—like beaches with ocean, or slopes with snow. And it's even been known to rain during some business trips. Does this mean the designated driver has to sit apart all day, to keep the key fob dry? Apparently so.

Some friends who'd gone fishing in the mountains of Montana returned to their car and discovered the fob would not start the engine. Fortunately, they possessed the rudimentary skills for jumpstarting, but once the engine turned over, it set off the warning horn. They could not disengage the horn, however, and it blared the grim story of the hotwiring for the hundreds of miles they had to drive to the nearest dealer-service place. They arrived deafened, but they did get the problem solved: The fob's battery was low. Still, I suspect that maybe it had gotten a little, you know, damp, during the day’s fishing.

Door locks. After some time, three or maybe four days, the car has attuned us to its preferences, and we are trained in the tasks that used to be easy, like getting in and out. Each individual car truly cares how close the fob holder is standing before it will release the locks. Recently four of us using one rental car evolved an approach that looked like a slow waltz, as each of us took position by our respective door so the driver could step by, waving the fob. My door proved stubborn, however, and wouldn't release until the driver stood mere inches away and had stepped forward and backward several times, looking like a dance instructor on a video being run repeatedly in reverse.

Braking to start. Another habit to learn involves stepping on the brake in order to start the car, with fob in hand. This is about as intuitive as stepping on the gas to stop the car.

Surely the safer, saner route than these counter-intuitive innovations is to simplify some car operations. We should have the option to rent a car that has an actual key, for example. And the innovations that prove enduring can be made more standard among models, rather than expressing highly individual approaches to the technology.

But, the trend seems to be running in the opposite direction, and the sweetest moment comes when I return the car to the rental lot at the end of our long date, both of us happily free of any serious new dents, and kiss it goodbye. Until the next time.

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