I don’t know who coined the term â€” I suspect it was Car and Driver, which was then at an all-time peak of editorial excellence â€” but this is probably one of those cases where success has many fathers, and the child in this case was the phrase “idiot light.”
Let’s say that you were a new-car buyer in 1977. The vast majority of the cars you saw in a dealership would have just two gauges: speedometer and fuel level. Any other information was conveyed in binary fashion by a set of light-up warnings. The typical Seventies American car would have TEMP (for overheating), OIL (for lack of oil pressure), ALT (alternator/battery), and BRAKE (for low brake fluid), but some models had additional lights for low coolant and other functions.
The self-appointed automotive cognoscenti were very contemptuous of these lights, because they didn’t convey much information and they usually didn’t convey it until things had gotten drastic. Why not have a temperature gauge to let you know that your car was getting hot on the way up the Grapevine? Or an oil-pressure gauge, to give you a general idea of your engine health? Why couldn’t the driver be trusted to know the real information and to act accordingly?
Eventually, the “buff books” got their way and most cars started arriving in showrooms with at least a tachometer and a temp gauge in addition to speedo and fuel. The presence of extra gauges became the in-dash equivalent of a decklid spoiler, with various sporting models adding information on oil pressure, oil temperature, and boost pressure â€” where applicable, of course. This was done to make the driver feel like he was behind the wheel of a race car. Never mind the fact that modern race cars have embraced the “idiot light” wholeheartedly. My wife’s MX-5 Cup car has no fewer than six programmable warning lights flanking the tach. When you’re racing for real, it’s better to have a very bright light pop on every time there’s a real problem. It saves you the trouble of replacing the engine.
Today’s cars offer an absolute surfeit of available information through programmable dashboard layouts, of course, but the battle still rages between people who want to see analog information â€” let’s call them Evaluators â€” and people who just want to see a light â€” let’s call them Booleans. You can tell a lot about a car company, and that car company’s intended customer base, by seeing whether they cater to Evaluators or Booleans on any given subject. Consider, if you will, the 2018 Accord, which abandons the former and jumps to the latter in one significant aspect.
Honda’s LaneWatch appeared five years ago and, from the moment I saw it, I knew the whole industry would have to copy it or die trying. It works very simply: when you put your right turn signal on, it shows you a view of your right-side “blind spot” with helpful markings to show where the back bumper of your car would be if you moved over there. The display is remarkably clear and entirely accurate; if you can see a sliver of space between a bumper and the red line, your car is going to fit, no questions asked. In most of the cars to which it was fitted, including my 2014 Accord Coupe, the LaneWatch display is relatively high and central on the dashboard, so you don’t have to take your eyes completely off the road ahead in order to see what’s behind you and to the right. It can also be manually activated if you just want to take a look over there for motorcycles, cyclists, or low-roofed sports cars.
LaneWatch is utterly brilliant â€” if you have an idea of how to use it. It gives you all the information you need to determine if you should move into the next lane and when you should make that move. It’s a godsend in cramped rush-hour traffic, where it lets you sneak into tiny spots on your way over to an off-ramp. It’s brilliant in states that permit lane-splitting; you can take a peek to see if there’s a motorcycle over there. In urban traffic, you can leave it switched on in order to keep an eye out for cyclists.
I wasn’t the only person to sing the praises of LaneWatch, although Jamie LaReau at Automotive News disliked it because it kept you from being able to change radio stations while you were changing lanes. Most of my autojourno friends and foes agree that it’s a solid feature. It even makes you a slightly better citizen of the road, because it only activates by default when you use your right turn signal. I figured that pretty much every automaker out there would eventually figure out a way to put something similar in their cars, particularly since a lot of entry-luxury sedans and SUVs already have a “birdview” camera arrangement for parking.
Turns out I was wrong. LaneWatch didn’t catch on anywhere else. Worse yet, it’s now disappearing from Honda products, starting with the 2018 Accord. That fine vehicle has dispensed with LaneWatch in favor of an utterly conventional blind-spot monitoring system just like the ones found everywhere from Audi to Kia. In other words, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Or maybe you can say that they wiped out analog information and put up an idiot light.
I don’t trust the idiot light. The engineer in me doesn’t like the failure mode. You see, when LaneWatch fails you get a black screen, which lets you know that you’d better crane your neck old-fashioned style. But when BLIS fails, you just get a mirror devoid of warnings. LaneWatch is like a John Updike novel, full of trenchant observations and little details. BLIS is like the sullen teenager who comes from school and responds to all queries with a mumbled “Fine.” With LaneWatch, you can slip into the tightest spots; with BLIS, you guess and crank. LaneWatch will show you a car that is approaching at an unusual and/or unreasonable closing speed; BLIS stays silent until the car hits the radar beam. I know which one I prefer. Hell, if I had my way you’d have LaneWatch on both sides, depending on which way you flicked the turn-signal lever.
If I had to guess, I’d say that LaneWatch disappeared for two reasons. The first reason: it’s probably cheaper to do BLIS now. The sensors and mirrors are all standard Tier 1 supplier commodity grade now. The second reason is a little more frustrating. I suspect that Honda dealers didn’t like educating their customers on LaneWatch. If you’ve read Arrogance and Accords, you know how and why Honda dealers came to be pretty much the worst in the business, with the possible exception of Toyota shops. They like to rake in the money with the absolute minimum of effort. Showing customers how to get the most out of an analog feature like LaneWatch isn’t part of that program. Au revoir, then.
It might not be the end. At some point, someone will figure out how to build a wireless heads-up LaneWatch-style system that works with everything from Civics to Silverados. You’ll have to calibrate the red lines yourself, but that could be done in ten minutes with the help of a friend. I’d probably buy a system like that for my race cars, because having extra eyes on both sides of the car can be the difference between winning and losing. Until then, however, it’s back to the idiot lights. Maybe that’s all we deserve. A nation of idiots, too busy to be watchful.