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10 Things to Know Before Test-Driving a Car

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Next to purchasing a home, accepting the title to a brand-new car will be one of the biggest financial transactions of your life. So why do so many people make a decision after just a few minutes behind the wheel? “It’s absurd,” says B.J. Killeen, an automotive journalist and former road test editor at Motor Trend magazine. “Fifty percent of people who walk into a dealership have no idea what kind of car they want.”

Ideally, researching cars in your price range, checking reliability ratings, and shopping dealerships for the best price all happens before you decide to take something for a spin. Here’s what Killeen says you should know before you hit the ignition.

1. THE DOOR CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

Don’t just hop into the car without taking a closer look at the door and its handle. “Pull it open, shut it, and do it again,” Killeen says. “Pay attention to how it’s reacting. Is it flimsy? The feel of it opening and closing can tell you a lot about the quality of the vehicle.”

2. TURN OFF THE RADIO.

A high-quality sound system is something any sales consultant is going to want to impress you with—but you, being the savvy consumer you are, can wait until you get back to the dealership before you start messing with it. “It’s a distraction,” Killeen says. “You want to be paying attention to the engine and to road noise.” (The latter is especially important: Poorly insulated cabins can contribute to indoor noise pollution and make long trips more fatiguing, she says.)  

3. DON’T TAKE THE DEALER’S ROUTE.

A salesperson riding in the passenger seat is likely to have an idea of where he or she would like you to take the car: Some paths might better show off features like parallel parking assistance or blind spot monitoring. That’s all fine, but you’ll also want to drive on roads you’re most likely to frequent. If it’s highway mileage, you’ll be able to see how the car performs during acceleration; if it’s rockier territory, you can see how it responds to a little adversity.

4. GO TO THE GROCERY STORE.

“People don’t always have an idea of how big a car is until they try to get out of a grocery store spot,” Killeen says. By squeezing into a parking space, you’ll be able to see if you can comfortably get in and out of the vehicle when there’s less room to open the door; backing out lets you test any rear-shift back-up camera and cross-traffic alert features.

5. DON’T DRIVE ALONE.

Some dealerships are happy to let you cruise on your own, but Killeen believes having a sales consultant in the passenger seat is part of the point. “They should be there to answer questions. If you’re not understanding the features of the car, you’re not really getting the full benefit of the test drive.”  

6. JUMP IN THE BACK SEAT.

You might not spend a lot of time back there, but family and friends will. Make sure it’s comfortable, with sufficient leg and head space. Killeen also recommends popping open the trunk to check storage capacity.

7. TRY TO DRIVE YOUR DESIRED TRIM LEVEL.

Car models come in tiers, or “trims,” that offer more features and luxury touches as you move up in price. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to drive the top-of-the-line version when you’re budgeted for the entry-level model, and vice-versa. It’s even more important when there might be a difference in engines. “You don’t want to drive a Ford Fusion 1.6 liter when you want the Fusion Hybrid,” Killeen says. Even seats—some people don’t like leather—can dramatically affect the driving experience. “If a dealer doesn’t have your car, find someone who does.”

8. COME BACK FOR ANOTHER DRIVE AT NIGHT.

The difference between driving during the day and at night is—well, you get it. “I’d drive both times,” Killeen says. “There’s so much new technology, like adaptive lighting, which changes when you turn the steering wheel. You can’t get a good look at it during the day.” A car’s color can also look a little different depending on visibility: Make sure you like it after dark.

9. CONSIDER AN OVERNIGHT TRIAL.

Some dealers allow customers to borrow a car overnight to get a better feel for how it integrates into their life. If it’s available, Killeen believes you should take advantage of the opportunity. “You get to live with it. Does it fit in your garage? Can you get golf clubs or soccer gear in and out of the trunk?” If a sleepover isn’t an option, you could also try renting the model for a few days—just know fleet cars can take a beating and aren’t necessarily a good example of how a brand-new model would handle.

10. DON’T TALK PRICE.

Salespeople are going to want to take advantage of having your ear during a drive by talking financing, add-ons, and other let’s-close-this-deal jargon. You should be more concerned with how the car is behaving. “People have problems stopping consultants cold. You need to be able to say, ‘Let’s not talk about this now. Let’s talk later.” If the pressure doesn’t let up, remember that another dealer is likely to have the car (and attitude) you want. “You need to be in the driver’s seat.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Design Firm Envisions the Driverless School Bus of the Future
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Engineers have already designed vehicles capable of shuttling pizzas, packages, and public transit passengers without a driver present. But few have considered how this technology can be used to transport our most precious cargo: kids. Though most parents would be hesitant to send their children on a bus with no one in the driver's seat, one design firm believes autonomous vehicle technology can change their rides for the better. Their new conceptual project, called Hannah, illustrates their ideas for the future of school bus travel.

As Co.Design reports, Seattle-based design firm Teague tackled both the practical challenges and the social hurdles when designing their driverless school bus. Instead of large buses filled with dozens of kids, each Hannah vehicle is designed to hold a maximum of six passengers at a time. This offers two benefits: One, fewer kids on the route means the bus can afford to pick up each student at his or her doorstep rather than a designated bus stop. Facial recognition software would ensure every child is accounted for and that no unwanted passengers can gain access.

The second benefit is that a smaller number of passengers could help prevent bullying onboard. Karin Frey, a University of Washington sociologist who consulted with the team, says that larger groups of students are more likely to form toxic social hierarchies on a school bus. The six seats inside Hannah, which face each other cafeteria table-style, would theoretically place kids on equal footing.

Another way Hannah can foster a friendlier school bus atmosphere is inclusive design. Instead of assigning students with disabilities to separate cars, everyone can board Hannah regardless of their abilities. The vehicle drives low to the ground and extends a ramp to the road when dropping off passengers. This makes the boarding and drop-off process the same for everyone.

While the autonomous vehicles lack human supervisors, the buses can make up for this in other ways. Hannah can drive both backwards and forwards and let out children on either side of the car (hence the palindromic name). And when the bus isn’t ferrying kids to school, it can earn money for the district by acting as a delivery truck.

Still, it may be a while before you see Hannah zipping down your road: Devin Liddel, the project’s head designer, says it could take at least five years after driverless cars go mainstream for autonomous school buses to start appearing. All the regulations that come with anything involving public schools would likely prevent them from showing up any sooner. And when they do arrive, Teague suspects that major tech corporations could be the ones to finally clear the path.

"Could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig?" the firm's website reads. "Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions."

[h/t Co.Design]

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Wisconsin Considers Building a Highway Lane for Self-Driving Cars
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Self-driving cars are already a reality, as companies like Google and Tesla have demonstrated. But the logistics of getting them on the roads with human-operated cars have slowed down their long-anticipated takeover. In Wisconsin, highway planners are looking into one way to accommodate autonomous vehicles when they arrive. Dedicated lanes for driverless cars are being considered for I-94, USA Today’s Journal Sentinel reports.

The project is supported by Foxconn, the Taiwanese tech supplier building a new facility 20 miles outside of downtown Milwaukee. Once the site is complete, it will cover 20 million square feet and employ up to 13,000 people. According to the company, setting aside space for self-driving vehicles could ease traffic congestion, both from new workers and cargo trucks, after the factory opens.

Officials were already planning to expand I-94 from six lanes to eight to accommodate the eventual increase in traffic, but Foxconn says that may not be enough. “We’re thinking about two years down the road; they’re thinking 20 years down the road,” Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said at a meeting of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.

While Sheehy said the autonomous car lane proposal is “on the table,” he didn’t make any promises regarding the plan’s future. Wisconsin isn’t the only state looking ahead to new developments in road travel: In October, tech investors pitched an idea to Washington state officials to convert Interstate 5 into a corridor for autonomous vehicles between Seattle and Vancouver.

[h/t Journal Sentinel]

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