Volvo XC90 Pilot Assist
Volvo XC90 Pilot Assist

Way back in 2016, as manufacturers were rolling out the first automatic driver assistance systems (ADAS), everyone was eager to call them autonomous features. Look, everybody! THE FUTURE.

Then Tesla‘s system, which was actually and misleadingly called Autopilot, was implicated in a fatal crash when the driver repeatedly ignored the car’s requests for him to put his hands on the wheel and take over driving tasks. A slew of YouTube videos of people seeing how far they could go and how much they could get away with while ADAS systems were engaged, like climbing into the back seat while on the highway, didn’t help matters.

So now manufacturers are spooked. The very technologies that are supposed to help save lives on the road are encouraging people to do new, creatively stupid things that could end up costing a few lives in the short term. Not exactly the PR everybody was hoping for.

Stealthy Safety

That means that car companies are hardly saying a word about the ADAS features in their new cars. Automotive News reported that these high-tech safety features are hardly appearing in marketing, despite the fact that they can save lives. Not to mention the fact that you often have to pay more for the most advanced systems; don’t car companies want our money?

They do, but they really don’t want our ill will, our irresponsible YouTube videos, and our tweetstorms when something goes terribly wrong. So they’d rather explain the technology in person and without hype.

But people don’t want to sit and listen quietly to a sales guy after they’ve bought their new car; they want the keys and a stretch of open road, and maybe a celebratory dinner after spending all day in a dealership. J. D. Power found that satisfaction drops after 25 minutes of waiting to drive that new car off the lot. Which means people often don’t know all the cool things their cars can do.

Whisper, Don’t Shout

Take Volvo, for example. It’s not known for being flashy, but it is known for safety. Its latest Pilot Assist II system, as well as a whole suite of other safety technologies, is available on three newly redesigned models, and it is brilliant. I’ve tested it in the XC90 crossover and S90 sedan. Pilot Assist’s abilities to keep the vehicle on track and away from other vehicles is top notch. But they’re not advertising it, and they’re apparently not instructing new owners in its wonders.

The director of marketing for Volvo in the United States, John Militello, told Automotive News, “We want to have the appropriate conversation, not just shout our message at people.” Which is the most Volvo thing he could say.

But that leaves me having a conversation over dinner with a venture capitalist who had bought a new Volvo XC90 a few months before. He had no idea his vehicle could take over basic driving tasks at slow speeds, which relieves stress on the driver. He didn’t know how to use adaptive cruise control at higher speeds. He didn’t know how to turn these features on or under what conditions they would work. And he was a super smart guy.

There must be a happy medium somewhere in the middle, where car makers are truthful about the technologies on board without overselling them or leaving buyers in the dark. In the meantime, Carsplaining will be hanging out here if you need anything. Just holler.

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