A new technology received welcome attention at the International Carwash Association’s The Car Wash Show in 2019. During the Annual Membership Meeting, Richard Enning, CEO of the Essen, Germany-based Mr. Wash car wash chain and, at the time, president of the association, referred to “car wash mode,” a then newly floated function from Mercedes Benz that retracted mirrors and antenna and disabled advanced driver assistance systems for the duration of the wash.

Enning characterized this function as an icebreaker and encouraged operators everywhere to post signs instructing customers to “activate your car wash mode,” and to refer those who were mystified to their dealers or the auto manufacturers, thus creating demand.

How much demand, if any, was created is anyone’s guess. But there has been some movement since. Car and Driver had this to say following the introduction of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS at the New York Auto Show: “A standard feature is ‘carwash mode’ that adjusts the mirrors, windows, sunroof, climate control, and wipers for you and even raises the air suspension so your GLS can be effectively cleaned underneath.” And the following comes from the Tesla Model 3 owner’s manual: “When taking Model 3 to a car wash, Car Wash Mode closes all windows, locks the charge port, and disables windshield wipers, Sentry Mode, walk-away door locking, and parking sensor chimes. To enable, touch Controls > Service > Car Wash Mode. Your vehicle must be stationary and not actively charging.”

That’s a reasonably small number of touchscreen menu selections to run through to enable car wash mode — if you know where to look. Several years ago, I related an experience I had with a rental car. It was mid-summer, and somehow the heater in the driver’s seat was engaged. I realized this only when some miles down the freeway, I found myself literally on a hot seat. After several attempts at scrolling through the onscreen menus at freeway speed in an unsuccessful search for the appropriate button to switch off the heat, I figured the safer way was to exit the freeway, park, and then do battle with the car’s controls.

That was the smart choice. According to trl.co.uk, a recent study by the UK Transport Research Laboratory and road-safety charity IAM Roadsmart, found that drivers took their eyes off the road for as long as 20 seconds when asked to play a track from Spotify using a touchscreen interface — long enough to travel 630 meters (more than a third of a mile) at 70 miles per hour. The study found that drivers’ reaction times during these distractions increased by up to 57 percent.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the touchscreen interface seems to be favored by most auto manufacturers. And they have grown in presence — not only in numbers but also in size. Most cars opt for a screen mounted almost as an afterthought on the dashboard, others have incorporated a large screen portrait-style in the center console a la Tesla Model S. The latest “innovation” is to expand the screen across the entire width of the dashboard, from door to door. Think Cinemascope.

Smart cars can add convenience as we go about our daily activities, whether more safely, it seems, is debatable. And as smart cars can capture and transmit information about locations you visited, your preferences, driving habits, video and voice recordings, etc., you can kiss your privacy goodbye.

Stefan Budricks