Karl Brauer, executive analyst at automotive research firm iSeeCars. An automotive journalist for more than 25 years, he is a jury member for both the North American Car and Truck of the Year and the World Car of the Year awards. iSeeCars.com
Is your car’s tech driving you crazy? You’re not alone. Modern vehicles are full of features intended to make cars safer, more pleasant or more fuel-efficient—but that actually cause frustration. Among the most angst-inducing automotive technology today—and what to do about it…
Automatic start/stop systems. In many modern vehicles, the engine automatically shuts off when the car stops, such as at a red light, then restarts when the driver shifts from the brake to the gas. This boosts fuel economy—but by only about one mile per gallon. Many car owners don’t consider that modest savings worth the drawbacks, which include slower acceleration from a stop…loss of power steering when stopped, making it difficult to position the car for a quick lane change when the light turns green…and increased wear on the battery, starter motor and engine.
What to do: Temporarily disabling this start/stop system is simple—look for a button on the dash or steering wheel marked with a letter “A” surrounded by an arrow or read the vehicle’s owner’s manual for details. But these systems typically turn back on each time the vehicle is restarted, so you’ll have to hit this button for every trip. Caution: Adding aftermarket products designed to shut off the start/stop feature permanently, including Autostop Eliminator and Smart Stop Start, can sometimes cause problems for the vehicle’s electronics systems.
Warning lights on the dashboard. A rectangle with wavy arrows? A cartoon image of two cars with a star between them? Dozens of different warning lights can suddenly appear on the dashboards of modern cars, and few car owners know what they all mean. The result is distracted driving and, sometimes, unnecessary mechanic’s bills.
What to do: The color of the dash light provides a gauge of how concerned you should be. A red warning light suggests a pressing issue, such as low oil pressure or high temperature—pull over as soon as possible. A yellow light means one of the car’s systems is experiencing a problem—there’s no need to pull over right away, but repairs might be needed soon. And a blue or green icon is just letting you know that a system is in use.
The much-feared “check engine light” typically isn’t reason to panic if it’s yellow—it is likely suggesting that there is an issue with the emissions system. In fact, sometimes it can be corrected just by tightening the gas cap.
If you’d like to know a bit more about what a dash light is trying to tell you before taking the car to a mechanic, you can buy an easy-to-use OBD2 code reader at an auto-parts store or online for as little as $25. While the owner’s manual may provide a high-level description of what an indicator light means, the code reader will provide a specific answer. It’s the same system dealers use to determine what to address when you bring in your car.
Proximity key fobs. Modern fobs communicate wirelessly with vehicles, saving drivers the hassle of fishing the key from their pocket. But is that minor convenience worth the downsides? It used to cost a dollar or two to make a spare car key, but wireless fobs cost $150 to $650 each. And it used to be impossible to drive away without your car key, but now drivers can do just that and end up stranded. Reason: A car will continue to run if the person holding the fob gets dropped off and the driver leaves without realizing he doesn’t have the fob. The vehicle is supposed to immediately recognize the lack of a key…but often it takes several minutes or longer to issue an alert. Finally, these fobs require batteries, which eventually die.
What to do: When you drop off someone who has his own fob for the car, double-check that you have your fob before driving away. If you’re prone to misplacing keys, add a wireless key-tracking device to your key ring to reduce the odds that you’ll lose these pricey fobs. Buy spare fob batteries, and stash them in your home and car. Also learn how to use your fob if its battery does die—some fobs have old-fashioned physical keys hidden inside, which fit into concealed ignition key slots in the car. Other fobs can be used wirelessly even with a dead fob battery, perhaps by holding the fob directly against the car’s start button while pressing it. Find these details in your car’s owner’s manual…or enter the vehicle’s make, model, year and the words “how to start with a dead key fob battery” into a search engine.
On-screen phone-dialing systems. The on-screen buttons on a car’s center console screen can be difficult to use to make a call.
What to do: If your car supports Android Auto, Google Assistant and/or Apple CarPlay, use these systems’ voice controls to make calls.
Lane-keep assist. This safety feature prevents cars from straying out of their lanes. Unfortunately, many of these systems take control too aggressively, ping-ponging drivers back and forth in their lanes…pulling cars the wrong direction when confronted by complicated situations such as construction-zone lane modifications…and they often can’t be counted on to take control when actually needed. When AAA tested five lane-keep assist systems, they experienced one problem per eight miles traveled, a dangerously high error rate.
What to do: If a car’s lane-keep assist system frustrates you, turn it off. There’s usually a deactivation button on the dash or steering wheel—in some cars, you’ll have to deactivate before every trip…in others, it will remain off until reactivated. Or look for this system in the vehicle’s onscreen menu.
Adaptive cruise control. This system automatically maintains a safe distance from the car ahead. It can be useful in stop-and-go traffic and on relatively open roads—but frustrating when traffic is fast-moving and congested. Examples: Sometimes these systems leave such a big gap with the car ahead that other drivers cut in front…or they become confused when the road curves, mistaking a car in a neighboring lane as one that’s dead ahead.
What to do: Reduce your adaptive cruise control’s following distance…and turn off this system if it frustrates you. Your owner’s manual will explain how to do both of these things.
One-touch automatic windows. Pressing the driver’s door window control sometimes makes the window go all the way up or down—even if the control is pressed only for a moment. This feature can be annoying when drivers want only to crack the window slightly.
What to do: Use a light touch with one-touch window control. In virtually all vehicles, the window won’t automatically open or close all the way if the button is pushed very gently.