Don't Trust Tech Too Much

Fish Eye GTI

My wife got a new car recently, a slick little 2016 Volkswagen GTI Autobahn. It's worth noting here that I will not-humbly claim that this is largely my influence - I've wanted a GTI since I was 20 years old, and now she's had two. She doesn't like me crowing about that influence, though, so don't tell her I said that. It really is a great little car - despite its boy-racer hot-hatch shape and stance, it's remarkably refined and definitely the most grown-up car the two of us have ever owned in terms of features and sophistication.

It actually ended up being too sophisticated for us just the other day, in fact. We got a recall notice on the thing for a fairly minor issue, as most people will get on their cars over time. We sat on it a little bit, because we knew that the car's computer was telling us that its maintenance window was coming up soon, and I decided that I'd just kill both birds at once. That day came, and I sat down at my computer to hop onto the dealer's website and book the appointment. I picked my time slot, marked off that it was due for its first scheduled service, and put in the notes that the car needed its recall fix and finally that I'd need a shuttle since I estimated three to four hours' time to get everything done. Appointment booked, I drove over after school dropoff on my alloted day.

When I got there, there was no shuttle available for an hour. Okay, that's going to happen - you never can tell exactly what the shuttle needs are on a given day, and that's first come, first served, no reservations, just like every dealer I've ever seen. They also didn't have enough parts to do the recall work, because the mothership gave them only x number of kits a week, and the next allotment was en route. But the worst part was that my car wasn't actually due for its maintenance. It wasn't explained to me when I bought the thing that the countdown is based on a calendar, not on miles first, not on general status of the car's engine oil, or anything that you might expect. Granted, every place that gives you an oil change will tell you "well, we need you to come back at this date or these miles, whichever comes first," but like I imagine most people do, I check things regularly myself and defer to the mileage as long as everything passes my layman's inspection.

What happened here for this confusion? When it comes off the assembly line, Volkswagens' computers are configured to trigger the service interval warning after a year. If a car sits on the lot for the better part of that year, and the calendar doesn't get reset during the pre-sale inspection, then the car thinks it needs its service exactly a year from when it was first given life. That's what happened to me - I bought it near the end of the model year, and it was built in October of 2015. Nobody reset the calendar to a more sane value, so I simply didn't know if my family's new car was having legitimate service issues or not.

This isn't the fault of Volkswagen, or the dealer, or the maintenance tech. Little details like that sometimes get hung up, and my dealer didn't even have the car for most of its pre-sale life. It was brought in as a dealer-to-dealer trade just a month or two before I bought it. I actually claim most of the responsibility here, because I trusted their tech too much. I trusted that if I told their website I had a recall, that note would get to the right people and they'd call me if they couldn't do it. I trusted the car, as fancy as it is, to know accurately when it really needed routine maintenance - I mean, the TPMS is certainly accurate, why not the rest of the computerized helpers?

This whole thing makes me worry, though. In terms of cars, we're certainly heading towards an autonomous future. I'm nowhere near that myself, of course, as I won't be affording that tech any time soon and by and large I like driving. But if we are in a state where we can't trust what our car tells us now, how do we become comfortable with what our car tells us when we're not actually in control of it? That's a big example, but we all have automated things in our lives, and not all them have been tried and true for long periods of time. Do I trust my phone to not allow itself to overheat and become dangerous? Not as much as I used to. Do I trust my bank's online billpay to get the money where it needs to go on time? I've had a few that have gone haywire their first couple tries, leading to some very apologetic phone calls. Even as a web developer, sometimes you run into issues where automated unit tests or automated feature tests report back false positives (or, worse, false negatives!).

The solution for your day-to-day worries is pretty simple, I think. As we are the masters of our technology, we should trust our instincts when our technology does something we don't expect or don't understand. If we lack sufficient mastery of the technology to recognize this situation, we should either get it or seek out those who have it. I trust the people who build our smart devices, but I shouldn't forget that I'm the one actually using them. I trust most the things I made or I've made the commitment to understand fully. But do I trust myself to not be dumb about where I put my trust? Ehhhhhh.

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