Veering out of your lane is one of the leading causes of road fatalities. Combine that with using your phone while driving and we’re really asking for trouble.
For now, the concept of the connected car mostly concerns using our phones, but if you do that while driving, your attention shifts downward. Scientists often compare this to drunk driving — it’s essentially a black-out where your mind literally doesn’t see around the car. It matches up with something called sustained attention span, the part of the brain that can focus on one thing at a time, usually for about 5-10 minutes. It’s a good thing — else we’d be having squirrel moments constantly — but if you try to text and drive, you know that your brain can’t multitask. You will drift out of the lane; you will plow into the car stopped in front of you.
On the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata, there’s an unusual number of features to help. Lane-keeping was never intended to encourage someone to use their phone; it’s a tool for drivers who maybe sip a coffee or glance at a friend in the passenger seat. A loud warning beep emits when you veer out of the lane, as if to remind you not to spend any sustained attention on the radio selection or, heaven forfend, your phone. Unlike several other cars I’ve tested, there are quite a few options for how you configure this. You can adjust whether the lane-keeping kicks in at the lane marking or slightly before you veer out of the lane. In my tests, both have their value. If you use “at” the marking, it’s a little less annoying. “Before” can chime too often.
You can also adjust how loud the beep sounds: low, medium or high. There’s a setting for the “rumble strip” sound, although it sounds more like feedback from an amp. When you drive, that low drone gets your attention right away.
These adjustments are helpful because every driver is different. You might keep the radio off as you ramble over a country road, and a soft chime is all you really need. You might be in commuter traffic and don’t want to hear the chime when you touch a lane marking because you’re moving so slowly anyway — all you want to know is if you start moving slightly out of the lane (the “at” setting). I could see these options expanding even further, letting drivers adjust the cruise control sensitivity as well (some luxury cars do allow this already).
In the future, connected cars will have similar settings related to traffic and infrastructure. For example, you’ll be able to set how quickly your autonomous car takes a turn in an urban area or how wide it usually swings out when you’re in a parking lot. You might set the robotic controls for “comfortable” or “dynamic” driving someday.
For now, the Mazda MX-5 Miata — a fun two-seater with a fold-down top that costs $31,270 — has a few more settings for lane-keeping, although it doesn’t use technology to actually keep you in your lane (it’s only a warning system). I liked how much you can configure the options, and that Mazda chose to use a dial between the seats to select options in the touchscreen — similar to a Mercedes or a BMW — so that drivers stay focused on the road.
It makes the car safer, especially if you like to drive with a little punch. Maybe the Miata chimes aren’t that annoying after all.