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It Also Has Wheels

Larry Sayler

WE’VE OWNED OUR NEW 2023 Toyota Highlander Hybrid for six weeks. The technology and features are breath-taking. Until now, both of our vehicles were 18 years old. I feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up in a time I do not recognize.

Here are some of the bells and whistles on our new SUV, and my evaluation of their usefulness. Please forgive me if some of this information isn’t accurate; I’m still learning about these features.

Automatic parking brake engagement and automatic headlight dimming. Every time we put the vehicle in park, it automatically activates the parking brake. At night, the headlights automatically dim if there’s oncoming traffic or if we’re following another vehicle. Both of these are useful but unnecessary. I know how to set the parking brake; I know how to dim the lights.

Blind spot monitor. This is one feature I really like. A yellow icon appears on our outside left or right mirror if there’s a vehicle in our blind spot on that side. When passing another vehicle, it confirms that I have gone far enough around the other vehicle to pull safely back to the right lane.

Cross-traffic alert. When I’m backing out of a driveway or out of a parking spot, there is both a visual and audible alarm if a vehicle or person is approaching. Nice, but not necessary.

Driving position memory. This feature automatically adjusts the driver’s seat and outside rearview mirrors to suit your preferences. Because of the chip shortage, we were given only one key. A second key will be sent to us at some indefinite future time. When my wife and I each have our own key, the driver’s seat and outside rearview mirrors will automatically go to the positions last used by the driver with that key. This seems like it’ll be useful.

Dynamic radar cruise control. As with any cruise control system, this keeps the vehicle at the desired speed. But the “dynamic radar” portion of this system automatically slows us down as we approach another vehicle. My complaint: It slows us down too soon. My daughter told me I should be able to adjust this distance. As soon as I activate my turn signal to move over to pass the slower vehicle, the speed picks up nicely. My plan: Set cruise control to 100 miles per hour and the vehicle will automatically adjust to the speed of traffic. My wife does not agree.

Eco Score. A few days ago, I must have hit the wrong button. The dashboard display behind the steering wheel now displays my Eco Score. My Eco Score has ranged from 30 to 80. There are blue and green bars that fluctuate. It also has display areas for starting, cruising and stopping. I don’t know what any of this means. Perhaps I am a terrible person because I don’t care about my Eco Score, but this seems entirely useless. I need to find out how to change the display back to something useful.

Keyless starting. We start the car by simply pushing a button on the dashboard. The key needs to be close by. This feature would be more impressive if I could leave the key in my pocket—but that doesn’t happen. Every time I leave the car, I pull out the key to lock it, and every time I approach the car, I pull out the key to unlock it.

Lane tracking assist. When there are white or yellow lines on the road, this is supposed to help keep me in my lane. If I get too close to either side of my lane, it gives my steering wheel a “gentle nudge” to keep the vehicle in the lane. If I begin to cross a white or yellow line, it emits three beeps. This feature turns off when I activate the turn signal.

Does it really keep me in my lane? I knew of only one way to find the answer: Take my hands completely off the steering wheel. So, of course, that’s what I did. It performed admirably. But after about 10 seconds, a message appeared telling me to put my hands on the steering wheel. Overall, I find these gentle nudges to be annoying. The steering wheel is constantly moving back and forth in my hands.

Outside mirror defogger. When we turn on the rear window defogger, the outside rearview mirror defoggers also activate. This should eventually clear snow, or perhaps even ice, off the outside mirrors. We park in a garage and rarely have fog or snow on our outside mirrors, but this could be useful at times.

Rearview camera. Is this feature now ubiquitous on new vehicles? I have found this helpful, especially when backing into a parking spot.

Remote vehicle starting. A few weeks ago, I received an email from Toyota reminding me that if I download its app, I can use it to start the car from my living room. This will allow me to warm up or cool down the interior before I get in. The small print says my vehicle will wirelessly transmit my location, driving and vehicle health data to Toyota “for internal research and data analysis.” Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Three driving modes. Instead of “normal” mode, I can select either “sport” or “eco.” I’m not sure what these other modes do for me. I asked the salesperson and he really had no idea. I would guess that, like me, nearly all owners of vehicles with this feature always use “normal.”

Warning messages. Once, when I started the vehicle, a message appeared, “Caution. Roads May Be Icy.” When it’s below freezing and there has been precipitation during the night, I know the roads may be icy. Apparently, others find it helpful to be reminded of that. I have no idea what other nuggets of wisdom the car may want to impart to me at some future time.

Meanwhile, I can easily think of three features that I’d like to have on our new vehicle.

  • CD player. I don’t want to download songs using Bluetooth. I already have collections of songs I would like to hear. They’re called CDs. My brother tells me that for $30 I can buy a portable CD player and plug it into our vehicle.
  • Intuitively obvious buttons. The function of the myriad buttons and choices is not at all clear. I had to consult the owners’ manual to turn on the heater. Enough said.
  • Mid-dash display returns to last setting. Every time I turn on the vehicle, the display between the two front passengers brings up some bizarre, meaningless display. I wish it would automatically revert to the last place I had it set.

With our new vehicle, we took our 19-year-old granddaughter and my 95-year-old mother on a road trip to Colorado’s Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. The latter has perhaps 100 miles of roads and there’s nary a guard rail in sight. Frequently, the shoulder is only a few feet wide and going off the edge means tumbling hundreds of feet to a certain death. Yet there are almost no traffic fatalities because people know their lives depend on being alert.

Many of the features on our new vehicle enable or even encourage inattentive driving. I wonder what would happen if we outlawed all of these features, and by edict also removed all airbags and seat belts. Is it possible the number of accidents would go down because people would know that if they were in an accident, they would likely die? I would be in favor of this except I know careless drivers would kill not just themselves, but also many innocent people.

Our new vehicle cost $47,210, including tax and registration. My wife and I are frugal. We are also careful drivers. If Toyota offered the same vehicle—but with none of the above features—for $10,000 less, that’s the model we would have chosen.

Larry Sayler is the only person with a Wharton MBA who also graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. Earlier in his career, he served as CFO for three manufacturing and service organizations. For 16 years before his retirement, Larry taught accounting at a small Christian college in the Midwest. His brother Kenyon also writes for HumbleDollar. Check out Larry’s earlier articles.

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