Here's the problem with road-tripping in a 2019 model car: You can see the future from here, but you can’t drive it.
Case in point, a drenched night on I-64 in West Virginia. I am hugging the yellow line at the far left side of the fast lane, trying to give an extra-wide berth to the semitruck I’m passing—and I want to pass him fast, because the 18-wheeler is blasting our car with buckets of water. But my car is fighting me. As we round a tight corner, I can feel the Toyota pulling itself the other direction, back toward the semi.
No, the car doesn’t have a death wish. Its lane-keeping driver-safety aids are simply doing their job, trying to center the vehicle within its lane. But passing a truck in a downpour is the last place you want to feel like your car is trying to override you.
After driving across much of the eastern United States in the very capable and comfy 2019 Limited, the joys and annoyances of driving in this era—halfway to the autonomous vehicle future—became clear. Sometimes the technology that's meant to protect you (and eventually replace you as driver) does what it should, making a long road trip a little more bearable and the dream of true self-driving cars seem a little closer. But sometimes, both dance partners are trying to lead.
Driver's Little Helper
Like Nissan, Cadillac, and many other automakers, Toyota built a suite of driver aids that play the dual role of making driving safer and laying the groundwork for the self-driving car revolution to come. Toyota’s in particular, now called Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, is quite similar to the Nissan ProPilot Assist we recently tested in the new Rogue.
It has a smart cruise control that not only maintains speed, but also will slow down to keep your distance from cars ahead (and speed back up once you’ve changed lanes to get clear of them). It has a forward-facing camera that reads road signs. It has a dual-purpose lane-keeping feature called Lane Tracing Assist that sounds an alarm when you’re in danger of departing your lane without signaling, and also locks in on the lane markings to help you steer. If you don’t take the initiative to the turn the car as it approaches a corner, the car starts turning its own wheel. This tech feels super creepy at first. The feeling goes away. Mostly.
As Toyota and all the other automakers will tell you (especially in the wake of those YouTube videos of reckless showoffs trusting their Teslas a little too much), these are not self-driving technologies. The RAV4, like most of its competitors, will yell at you for turning on the lane-keeping feature and then taking your hands off the wheel. Which it should! For all its capability, Toyota Safety Sense cannot drive for you. At random times on our road trip, the system would lose sight of the lane markings—or, in the case of a poorly marked road in the rain, never find them at all—and disengage steering assist with little to no warning that you, poor human, are once again solely responsible for guiding the car.
When Toyota’s tech is on its game—when the vehicle is staying in its lane, keeping its distance from other cars, in fact doing most of the necessary highway driving tasks all by its lonesome—it’s impossible not to imagine the 2030 Toyota RAV4 It-Actually-Drives-Itself Edition, which chews up the interstate miles while all its occupants play a board game or stare at their phones or take a nap as if killing time inside a Greyhound. Instead, one lucky person babysits the technology, more shepherd than driver, bored out of their mind but commanded to remain vigilant in case the computer throws up its hands to say, “Okay, your turn.” As Pennsylvania became Ohio and then Kentucky and Tennessee, I daydreamed of escaping the cockpit and doing literally anything besides babysitting a car.
Welcome to the frustrating era of half-driving.
Choose Your Destiny
For the sake of fairness, let us say a few words in praise of Now, because now is still a damn good time to take a road trip.
The car companies promise a dual upheaval in the decade to come: the rise of more truly autonomous vehicles as well as the mainstreaming of electrification, in which most cars will become at least hybrids if not full EVs. The moment you feel the seat-pinning instant torque of a great electric vehicle is the moment you’ll be more than ready for the EV era. But we’re still a ways from figuring out long-distance electric travel.
It’s almost weird to drive a brand-new gas-only crossover in these days of future hype. Here’s the thing, though: We drove the RAV4 nine hours and made it to Jeni’s Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio, with 15 minutes to spare. We breezed into Kentucky and arrived just in time for the last tour of the day at the Maker’s Mark distillery. When the government shutdown closed Mammoth Cave National Park, we made a last-minute run to the Lost River Cave and rode a boat underground (you should do this). Electric cars are great, but they require careful logistics, not multistate spontaneity. Not the go-for-it of gasoline.
And if the RAV4 is an avatar for what a car is now in the crossover era, it’s a good one. The styling may be anonymous conformity, but those lines let me achieve a steady 29 mpg on the interstate—not bad for a big all-wheel-drive ride of this size. Eco mode does its job to keep that number up, but you can also pop into Sport mode to get rid of that lag when you hit the accelerator and turn the Toyota into a fiercer beast. The RAV4 is full of tech, especially in ultra-equipped Limited mode. But you can turn it off.
That choice is the car’s saving grace. When I could no longer stand feeling the car’s ghost hands steer one way while I steered the other, I just turned it off. When one of the RAV4’s many programmed nags popped up a coffee cup icon to ask if I needed a break, I said no, dammit, I’ve got to get to a cave, and dismissed the notification. That’s the good thing about driver’s aids that aren’t ready to actually drive the car. A person can say "no thank you," turn off the tech, and get back to driving something that feels like the first car they fell in love with on a road trip long ago.