The Swedes are a curious bunch. They build the world’s safest cars but from little more than walking age they’ll teach their children how to fell a tree with an axe, catch fish from the surface of a (hopefully) frozen lake and make a warming fire outdoors, using a tree trunk, a chainsaw and a can of petrol.
They are sensible and considerate in working hours, wild and uninhibited when night falls and the drinks flow. Obeying speed limits comes naturally, yet few nations’ drivers are better at drifting a car sideways through a snow-covered pine forest.
In some small way, this explains why, when Sweden’s motoring journalists gets their hands on a new car, they don’t do what the Brits, Americans and Germans do, and skid it around a test track or racing circuit until its tyres resemble balls of wire wool and the brakes appear to have erupted into a small bonfire. Oh no. The Swedes turn all serious, devising tests for real-world driving scenarios which you or I are unlikely to encounter in our lifetime but the likes of which keep Sweden’s reviewers awake at night.
Remember the Elk test? In 1997, a simple, standard testing procedure caused the board of Mercedes-Benz to drop everything they were doing – namely, launching the new Maybach Concept to the world’s media, at the Tokyo Motor Show – and fly back to Stuttgart, making damage-limitation plans as they went which would have to be presented to Juergen Schrempp, Mercedes’ CEO, the moment they touched down.
The Elk test was the work of Teknikens Värld, a Swedish car magazine. It was designed to probe at a car’s handling characteristics during a sudden, emergency lane change – such as when a 600kg moose stepped out in front of your Saab or Volvo.
That simple test – one which Mercedes had not subjected it’s new, mass-market A-Class to – literally tripped up the company’s most significant car yet. It’s estimated that a recall of the first 17,000 cars on the road, and subsequent fitment of an Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) as standard cost the company more than €2.5 billion more than it had intended to invest in the project.
So you can understand that when Sweden’s car reviewers are presented with modern cars with functions mostly operated through touchscreen systems, they don’t reach for their iPhone to stream their favourite podcast, or ask the car to order them a Foodora (their Deliveroo equivalent). They search for flaws.
How, they ask, is scrolling, swiping and jabbing your way through numerous menus safer than using conventional buttons or stalks on the steering column?
And, of course, they don’t just pose the question, they go in search of the answer – ‘they’ in this case being Vi Bilägare, a consumer magazine that has been doing sensible things with cars since 1930.
The answer doesn’t make for comfortable reading, at least, it doesn’t if you’re a car manufacturer that claims touchscreens offer progress through convenience, extra features, upgrades over time and, er, a virtual whoopee cushion. Using a 2005 era Volvo V70 as a benchmark, Vi Bilägare magazine established how long it takes the average driver to perform common tasks when at the wheel. These were changing the temperature of the climate control, choosing a specific radio station, resetting the trip computer and lowering the brightness of the instruments.
So far, so straightforward. The driver had to perform the tasks while travelling at motorway speeds, and had had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with all the cars being tested. So, let’s cut to the chase; if you performed the tasks in the built-with-buttons Volvo V70 while driving, how long would it take and how far would you have gone? It took all of 10 seconds and the distance travelled was 306 metres.
The worst offender of the new cars was an MG Marvel R, an electric, family-sized SUV, which took 47 seconds and covered 1372 metres in that time.
Ah, you may be scoffing at this point, it’s ‘just’ a rebadged Roewe Chinese car that can’t compete with the might of Europe’s prestigious car makers. If only. The next worst offender was BMW’s flagship electric car, the iX. Its driver needed 30 seconds to perform the simple tasks, taking them 928 metres down the motorway. The acclaimed Hyundai Ioniq 5 took 27 seconds and 815 metres. Pin-up for the Tesla fan club, the Model 3, needed 24 seconds and 717 metres, while Volkswagen’s post-dieselgate rush job, the poorly received ID.3, clocked in at 26 seconds and 786 metres.
Cars, you may have noticed, have never been more expensive. And as we transition to electric, that cost burden to the consumer is only going to increase. Many manufacturers say they will phase out high-volume, low-margin cheap cars in favour of posh and pricey alternatives that come packed with profit.
That escalating cost is also partly because car makers can’t justify fitting small cars with all the safety equipment that will be mandatory in the future. Yet the same safety bodies and rule makers, who are forcing expense upon consumers in the name of our wellbeing, have buried their heads in the sand over touchscreen tech in cars.
If I said to you, “I’m rubbish at using an iPad; would you send a message for me and then check the weather, please?” while you were driving, you’d tell me where to shove it. Yet these screens have proliferated for reasons of… you guessed it, cost.
Stuff you and I knew was flawed is being forced on us whether we like it or not.
As self-driving systems take a hold, more independent testers should take a leaf out of Teknikens Värld’s and Vi Bilägare’s book and highlight the hidden dangers of progress.