Sunday, 16 August 2020

RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD (episode three)

This is the third post in a series. The first post is here and the second here.

In the middle of last month I fuelled up the car again at the petrol station, this time (with 702km on the odometer) putting in $29.30 worth of unleaded. The time before I’d put in just over $25 at 256km, so the efficiency of Ensign was once again evident but as the second time I didn’t register in my phone the cost of fuel it’s hard to make a more precise estimate.

I was typing “precise” when I heard the intercom buzz. I let in a deliveryman with a parcel, which turned out to contain a satchel branded with the Toyota name and the word “hybrid”. Grey cloth, matching what seems these days to be the most common colour (along with white) for new passenger vehicles (though not Ensign).

Inside the satchel was a portable rechargeable battery and a capped cup for use outside (for flat whites and chai lattes, evidently). The battery had instructions in bad English and had been made in China. The cup was branded and had good English for its instructions.

Twenty-two July was also the day of my first car service, and I drove Ensign down to the dealership to drop it off then went to the Broadway Shopping Centre for lunch (rice with butter chicken as well as some of a chickpea curry, along with a Coke) after which I got a call from the dealership telling me the car was ready to pick up. I walked uphill through Glebe and into the service area’s office where I sat down with a woman to process my account. I told her about the warning message that I’d earlier mentioned to Ryan (the salesman) but she dismissed my complaint rather abruptly, as though I’d been wrong to mention it. 

I wasn’t proud of my conduct at this tete-a-tete, though I didn’t say, for example, “I’ve been driving cars for over 40 years. How old are you?” The conversation did however evolve in such a fashion as I felt my experience was discounted in favour of a simulacrum of intelligence as embodied in the car’s computer system, which seems not to have a heuristic function. Not only will it not synchronise its knowledge of time with that of location so as to understand when a school zone limit applies (between 8am and 9.30am and between 2.30pm and 4pm), but it won’t learn which routes a particular driver favours; it will keep on asking you to turn off the motorway even if the car and the driver have taken the same route before.

One day while driving I took note of how the instrument panel speed indicator won’t keep up with all road signs. Instead it provides an approximate guide or else is completely wrong; on one occasion I had it showing 110km per hour in a 50km/hr zone. So keep your eyes peeled and don’t expect the car to be right 100% of the time.

The car has its own understanding of the world, one which sometimes has little to do with reality beyond the confines of its programming and its limited knowledge. For example, when you start the car a message comes up on the centre console. See photo below. The manufacturer calls this article of equipment the “multimedia display” and, confusingly, calls part of the instrument panel the “multi-information display”, appearing to break new weirdness records for English used in manufacturers’ manuals.

The ignition message asks you to, among other things, obey road rules. It also notes for your information that some directions given by the satnav might be wrong. All well and good, but I don’t really need to be told to read the owner’s manual as I return home from buying a second-hand lamp at a thrift shop out in the boonies. The message is there by default and can, after a few seconds, be dismissed with a “Continue” button you can tap (once it becomes operative). The message also automatically goes away after a few more seconds, but after the first couple of times driving the car you’re unlikely to bother reading it. On the other hand, if someone wants your car space and you’re parked in a shopping mall, or if you need to get out into traffic because of a sudden break in the flow of cars, a few seconds can make all the difference. 

In reality, the car has these demands – you cannot put an address into the satnav while the car is in motion, a circumstance that is germane to the discussion underway currently – so you have to adapt your behaviour, as it were, to meet it halfway. It’s programmed to operate in a certain fashion and only within strict parameters can you engage with it in real time. You don’t drive the car, you work with the machine to navigate the roads.

This is the new reality of AI: often you are prompted to respond and, in other cases, you must override the system. In some cases this is not an option. For example I must listen to a warning message every time I reach Regent Street at the end of Harris Street. I have no idea why – at this, particular, spot – such a message becomes audible, but it is so: I hit a certain point in my trip to Botany (where the house I’m in the process of buying is located) and a message comes out of the car’s speakers (“Please obey all road rules”).

And if, after getting in the car, you want to quickly plug in a destination address, and you are in a hurry, you might have to wait until the first red traffic light to do it since, instead of a map of your city, the car’s redundant warning message will be stubbornly occupying critical real estate on the centre console. If there’s no red light you may find yourself pulling over to the side of the road in order to enable the satnav to accept your destination address.

Other functions and features are welcome. One day driving to Wollongong a blonde Millennial was so close to the rear of my car I could almost see the colours of her eyes. Afterward, I was so flustered I missed my turnoff so used the satnav to get back to the Princes Highway. This kind of improvisation to get out of a sticky situation would’ve been impossible in the old car. 

Some features, such as automatic door locking, can be confusing. It activates when you reach 25km per hour so that the doors won’t lock if you’re just moving the car to a more convenient spot, for example if your parking slot is narrow or if the car parked next to you is too close to open the doors. But passengers not aware of the feature might ask why the doors are locked when they want to get out to the kerb. There’s a universal unlocking button in the armrest of the driver’s side door that can be used to unlock back doors, or else a passenger can use an individual door’s locking mechanism – if he or she can work out how it operates – to get out of the car independently. This is another of the car’s features you must adjust your expectations to meet halfway.

Confusion might also result from the seatbelt warning, which kicks in once a weight is on a seat and the car is in motion. A weight might not represent a person, however, so you can get an alarm if you place a heavy bag on the back seat. The alarm goes away eventually but the first time it happens it might cause you to pull over to the side of the road to see what the fuss is all about.

The design for the “handbrake” (which kicks in once you put the car into Park) is good: a small red LED in a button on the console between the front seats lights up once it has engaged, letting you feel confident about turning the car off. When you turn the car on the instrument panel lights up with a short animation featuring the model name; it is easy to understand intuitively and serves the purpose of alerting the driver to the machine’s new state.

If you brake heavily to stop the car suddenly a tone will sound and a red warning will display on the instrument panel with the word “Brake”. I’m not sure of the utility of this feature but it shocked me when this circumstance first occurred to me while driving. I had been in traffic moving at about 50km per hour and the car in front suddenly propped, making it necessary for me to stomp on the brakes. 

This was a novelty, but some things happily haven’t changed, for example the knobs for radio volume adjustment and A/C operation. The radio is turned on by pressing a knob, though you change stations on the centre console using virtual buttons. The A/C temperature control knob is large and frictionless, with no stutters to impede your use of it while driving at speed. 

But keeping track of everything in a 2020 RAV4 does place an unusual burden on you. An ability to make and receive phone calls, for example, and to connect your mobile to the car via Bluetooth, adds levels of complexity to the driving experience. Hence the warning on starting. Despite all the distractions safety is generally enhanced and abiding by the law is easier than in a car without such digital features.

There hadn’t initially been many puzzles with the RAV4, though I’d called Ryan to ask about where to put the road tolling company’s tag. It turns out: within the black-spotted section at the top of the windscreen (I’d wondered if it’d be impaired in its operation if placed there). The tag arrived in my mailbox in a small satchel a few days after I’d ordered the device from Linkt, which used to be called Roam, and which trades on the stockmarket as Transurban. You can use their tags in all eastern states, so it’s handy for drivers in New South Wales to register with them and to get a tag delivered. The thing fits easily in the mailbox and has an adhesive area on a stem that you activate by pulling off a piece of paper (like a Band-Aid).

Ryan also told me that the locking mechanism in the door handle – if your remote control is within the car’s sensor’s ambit, you touch a marked area of the handle to lock the car – works in the rain. He sounded a tad perplexed when I’d asked this question and told me that the car has all the latest technology. 

He was, of course, right. The automatic wipers were a revelation and resulted in changed practice. When you go under cover – as, for example, happens for me when I park in the garage under my apartment building, or when going into the carpark of my local supermarket – the wipers stop, so you might want to use the operational lever to get rid of the drips that accumulate on the windscreen as a result of runoff from the roof. Or you might not, and simply let them sit there. If you want to get rid of the drips – this sort of thing bothers some people, including me – just click the lever down one notch and the wipers will activate once. In the event, I left the drips to sit and just parked the car with them sitting on the glass in front of me. 

Despite the car’s bulk, handling is impressive. It has a crisp feel because its suspension is tight, giving you confidence to address speed bumps at speed – you just chunk over them without scapes or undue bounce – and making steep driveways (such as the one at Officeworks in Glebe, a suburb of Sydney) perfectly manageable where before I’d had to creep into the trough to avoid part of the car coming into contact with the concrete.

The engine provides adequate power – remember, I had a car with a significantly larger engine just before buying my RAV4 – under all circumstances. At a steady 50km per hour on a flat road the battery alone might be powering the motors. Performance at speed and uphill on the highway is also different from what I had before. Under such conditions, compared to the Aurion, the RAV4 works hard, though I have to qualify this comment. 

The day of my first service Ryan countered my remarks about this issue by noting that, due to the anticipated (or actual) introduction of emissions caps, all manufacturers are phasing out their six-cylinder models. In Europe, for example, the burden of compliance with such caps rests with manufacturers, meaning that if fleet emissions don’t fall below a government-prescribed level, manufacturers are forced to pay a financial penalty. Other jurisdictions are either researching such limits or else are in the process of introducing them. So the days of the standard Aussie six-cylinder sedan are coming to an end, but for the moment I feel slightly underpowered. This came to mind while driving up the hill out of Wollongong with cars in the fast lane zooming past me. I felt wimpy flogging my 2.5-litre four-cylinder motor apparently to death.

Though the thing did still provide acceleration uphill at speed. Suitable for overtaking trucks. On one occasion at 80km per hour on an incline up the side of an escarpment with three adults on board it pulled away easily. But compared to the silence of the car accelerating effortlessly at low speed under the power of the traction battery, the sound of the petrol engine under pressure stands out for its seeming violence. On the motorway up a hill at 90km per hour the petrol engine and the battery both operated to move the RAV4 forward. Once on the flat at the same speed the engine began to charge the nickel-metal hydride battery and the system toggled between these two states, keeping the car’s speed steady while alternately charging and draining the battery.

On the day I had my first service done, I told Ryan, as I walked away from him in his place of work, that, if Toyota brought out a six-cylinder hybrid, I’d be interested in getting one. This won’t however happen.

To learn about the car’s features I brought the manuals upstairs to my flat, working out how to set the wipers to operate automatically when the car senses rain. On the day of my service I also dropped by at the Apple store and bought a half-metre USB cable for the iPhone 7. The accessory remains permanently inside the cabin and comes in handy when I have friends with me while driving on the open road. We are able to connect the car with the mobile phone of one person, and so play music on it through the RAV4’s speakers.

The instruction manual that came in the box of the free portable charging battery was less useful when I tried to learn how to work it (see photo below), and after a few attempts I gave up. The problem is that you might press the power button to make the charger go on – with a phone plugged into it via a USB cable, it initially works – but after 34 seconds (I timed it with a stopwatch) it turns off, meaning that the device you plug into it will not get charged. You can see it go off because the “charging” symbol on your phone disappears and because on the battery pack the lights go off. (They’re lined up on the end of the device between the power button and the USB socket.)

No matter how many times I consulted the manual, I couldn’t work out how to make the battery stay on after I left it to go away and watch TV or get a drink of mineral water.

I’ve fortunately had no such problems with the car. I’m reminded of Ryan’s cheerful laugh, and also of the marketing material that came with the rucksack: “Good things come to those who wait.” But I didn’t have to. I’d only had the car for a couple of weeks (I picked it up in the first week of July) and had already used it in pretty much every conceivable situation a car can find itself in. I’d only used $77 worth of fuel though I’d travelled over 1100 kilometres. Seven dollars per 100 kilometres is good going.

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