Posts Tagged Mercedes-Benz

Rich life, poor taste

Bugatti Veyron Super SportIn his review of the new Range Rover Sport on last Sunday’s Top Gear season finale, Richard Hammond described the “Premier League ghetto” of Wilmslow, home to the majority of Britain’s professional football players. Hammond drove through streets lined with jewelers selling diamond-encrusted Rolex watches, dealers selling Aston Martins, and realtors listing multi-million pound homes.

He also passed the wonderfully alliterative Gentry Grooming, whose motto was “grooming for the distinguished gentleman.”

Are professional athletes “distinguished gentlemen?” Even without American steroid scandals, footballers seem to lack the sophistication of the luxury goods and services they buy.

When Ettore Bugatti decided to sell cars to customers, he made a point of choosing them. Legend has it that Bugatti would invite potential buyers to his mansion (adjacent to the factory) for dinner, and if he didn’t like their table manners, he wouldn’t sell them a car.

Things have certainly changed. Anyone with $1.5 million can have a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, the world’s fastest production car. Not only does the buyer not have to be a gentleman (or woman), he or she doesn’t need to have any extra training despite the Super Sport’s roughly 265 mph top speed.

Sometimes I wonder how makers of expensive cars, clothing, and jewelry feel about their products being bought almost exclusively by crass celebrities, or worse. Mercedes-Benz certainly doesn’t want to advertise the fact that one of its most loyal customers was the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-ClassMercedes isn’t responsible for who buys its cars, of course, and people should always strive for excellence in the things they make, even if the people that get to use those things don’t.

That doesn’t make the disparity between item and owner any less jarring. After all, a car isn’t capable of being vulgar, like a professional athlete or randomly famous celebrity. Unless the athlete or celebrity does this to it, that is.

I don’t know what Mr. Bugatti would say if he was alive today, but he remark on the need for taste as well as money. We assume that, because they have acquired wealth, wealthy people have worked hard, and aren’t obligated to do anything except enjoy their reward. But when they’re being shown up by their own possessions, maybe they need to do a little more than that.


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Do smart cars make dumb consumers?

“I didn’t realize the car in front of me had stopped short,” the talking head on the television screen says,” luckily, my Mercedes did.”   A Lincoln is not just a luxury car, “It’s smarter than that.” In a crash, a VW Jetta will automatically cut its fuel pump, unlock the doors, and put on its hazards, because that is the smart thing to do. ExxonMobil even has smart gasoline.

Technology-enabled irresponsibility is making intelligence as important to buyers as fuel economy. Despite the recent tenth anniversary of The Matrix, most people do not seem to think that handing over everyday tasks to machines is a problem. In fact, researchers are working on making the human driver irrelevant. Volvo recently tested a “road train” of autonomous cars, and a robotic Audi TT sports car recently tackled the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb.  But few are questioning the ramifications of this technological shift.  Should we really give the wheel to robots?

Proponents of robo-cars point to the fact that humans are terrible drivers.  Anyone who has driven in Worcester, or even tried to cross the street, can attest to that.  We get tired, angry, and distracted.  We don’t get adequate training and then panic when faced with a difficult situation.  Our reaction times are glacial.  The proliferation of electronics in cars is only making things worse.  Recently, I encountered a car swerving wildly between lanes as its driver talked on the phone.

So autonomous cars will save us from ourselves; they will get us to our destinations faster, more efficiently, and more safely.  And since we won’t have to concentrate on driving, we’ll have plenty of time to do important stuff, like watch YouTube videos.

It all sounds great, but I’m not convinced.  Blaming all car crashes on driver error ignores mechanical faults.  Every year, most major manufacturers recall thousands of defective vehicles.  These defects are usually minor, but sometimes they can be serious.  In a couple of high-profile cases, Ford Pintos exploded when rear-ended and Explorers’ tires shredded under hard cornering.  At this time last year, America was besieged by out-of-control Toyotas.  I may not trust the idiot in the next lane, but I don’t trust his Camry either.

Even if a car is mechanically flawless, the roads it drives on probably aren’t.  Autonomous cars will need “smart roads” with sensors imbedded in them; the cars will use these sensors to orient themselves.  Go outside right now and take a look at your street.  How long do you think a delicate, expensive, piece of electronic hardware will survive there? America’s infrastructure is in bad shape and will require a significant investment just to make it safe for regular cars. Since funding for public works has become entangled in the larger debate over government spending and taxation, it is unlikely that large amounts of money will be invested anytime soon. Americans hate the delays roadwork causes and the taxpayer money it consumes with a passion; they will not tolerate the amount of maintenance a “smart road” will require.

Autonomous cars are taking people out of the equation, but few proponents have pondered the cars’ affect on the people themselves.  At one time, technology as viewed as a tool, a way to assist human beings in their endeavors.  Now, it seems like technology is supposed to do everything for us, while we vegetate.  Cars used to be powerful cultural symbols, they represented progress and freedom.  Driving is now viewed as a chore and cars are viewed as gas-guzzling money pits.  Given the automobile’s contribution to global warming, this may not be a bad thing.  But the loss of interest in driving is.

People used to take pride in their driving, like hitting a baseball or reducing a complex thought into 140 characters, it was a skill.  Operating (or even riding in) a motor vehicle will always be dangerous, but danger can be managed when people take it seriously.  Germany’s unrestricted autobahns are not a cruel Darwinian experiment because Germans take pride in their driving.  American always have better things to do, and that’s why so many of us are terrible drivers.  If you are really too busy to pay attention to driving, maybe you should take the train.

Good driving can be more than a safety issue. Caught between the ever-expanding powers of the wealthy and the fear of big government, individual Americans are feeling increasingly disenfranchised. Consumerism has become an attempt to empower people in a society that otherwise ignores them: individuals can express their personal qualities through their purchases. A Mercedes, Lincoln, or Volkswagen is a “smart purchase,” thus it shows the consumer’s intelligence.

Individuals should not let themselves get backed into a corner like this. Building a car that watches the road ahead denies its driver the opportunity to show that he or she is skilled enough to do so. It may seem frivolous, but how autonomous can individuals be when their only real choices in life are purchasing decisions?

Humans are pretty bad drivers, but the fact is that we are still capable of being good drivers and we should not let ourselves off the hook.  Today’s society worships convenience; if we encounter something that we are forced to do, we look for an excuse to not do it.  Self-driving cars will only make us lazier, and no utopian future is every built on laziness.  Instead, people will demand more convenience.  They will ask machines to help them, so they can stay in front of the computer all day.  The machines will oblige them, although they may want to harvest a little electricity in return.

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