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How Technology Helped Me Survive a 2,947-Mile Road Trip with 2 Teenagers and a Dog

Dan Tynan
July 8, 2014

We were driving through the painted desert along the northern border of Arizona when road fever took hold.

It started when my 17-year-old commandeered the Bluetooth connection to the car stereo from his sister after one too many Macklemore songs and began blasting the soundtrack from A Fistful of Dollars. She retaliated by attacking her older brother with a saguaro cactus she’d collected in Santa Fe. He defended himself using a John Wayne bobble-head doll he’d bought in Monument Valley.

I pulled us off the state highway in the middle of a howling windstorm and enforced a quick hike along the purple, gray, and blue dunes. At that point I’d have walked into a tornado just to get out of the car for a few minutes.

Family waving from the movie 'Vacation'
Family waving from the movie 'Vacation'

(Yahoo Images/Getty)

I wasn’t surprised events had taken this turn; I was only surprised it had taken so long. We’d been stuck in a car together for six days, driving from one coast to the other in a 2014 Buick Enclave that GM had lent to my lovely and talented wife, who among other things writes about technology and cars. (Fortunately, it was not one of the models recalled for faulty ignition switches.) This was our version of National Lampoon’s Vacation, and I was Chevy Chase.

Read: 10 Ways to Keep Your Family Sane During Your Summer Road Trip

Before we left, we made sure to load the Enclave with enough smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other gizmos to entertain two digitally savvy teenagers, as well as their parents. Technology is what made this trip not only possible but actually pleasant, despite the occasional cactus attack. And it starts with the tech built into car itself.

The good
I gave up all claims to being a cool car guy 17 years ago when I bought a minivan. Still, I thought, a Buick is something old people drive. (By “old people,” I mean “older than me.”) The Enclave changed my mind.

Buick Enclave
Buick Enclave

It is an excellent ride — comfortable, powerful, and stylish. We cruised along I-40 like a yacht sailing through placid seas. As a parent, I appreciated the Enclave’s many safety features, none of them unique to Buick but cool nonetheless — like the side mirrors that lit up when someone entered my blind spot, or the visual and audio warnings if I got too close to the car in front of me or suddenly veered into another lane. In short, the Enclave is a better driver than I am.

Read: This Accessory Lets Your Car Drive Itself

It’s also comfy. We were able to fit all our luggage, sleeping bags, a cooler, a ridiculous assortment of high-tech gear, and our obsessive-compulsive 60-pound terrier inside (just barely). It has separate climate controls for the driver and passenger seats, with a seat warmer and chiller. As we drove through the 115-degree heat of Death Valley, my buns remained as frosty as an Eskimo Pie.

The Enclave is not, however, a cheap ride, or a very green one. Loaded to the gills, with the AC running full blast and the pedal to the metal, it barely got 18 miles to the gallon — significantly below its 22 mpg rating. (Further disclosure: GM also paid for our gas.) 

The bad
When it came to the human-facing technology, however, the Enclave left much to be desired. You’d think a $50,000 car would come with an awesome infotainment system. But Buick’s IntelliLink was disappointing.

IntelliLink system on dashboard
IntelliLink system on dashboard

On paper it looked good: a 7-inch touchscreen that also responds to voice commands; GPS navigation with traffic and weather; built-in DVD and satellite radio; and a Bluetooth connection that lets you make hands-free calls, read your texts, stream Pandora, and more.

In practice, though, figuring out how to use IntelliLink was maddening. Like most nav systems, it won’t let you type in a destination while the car is moving; unlike others I’ve tried, however, it doesn’t flash an error message telling you that — it just doesn’t do anything. You can navigate while moving using your voice, provided that you can get the thing to actually recognize what you’re saying. That worked less than half the time. We ended up shouting (and cursing) at it a lot before giving up entirely; fortunately, the kids were wearing headphones.

The touchscreen often required multiple touches before it responded to commands, and the simplest things — like finding nearby gas stations — involved punching through six levels of menus. It was far easier to use my phone and simply tell Google Now, “Find the nearest gas station.” We ultimately ended up using the navigation on our phones’ map apps, which also provided better directions.

You can do a few other things with voice commands — like choose radio stations and initiate phone calls — but using IntelliLink mostly involved a lot of tapping through hierarchical menus. This isn’t unique to IntelliLink; the dumbest smartphone is still smarter than the most intelligent car software I’ve ever used. Now that Google and Apple have announced versions of their mobile OSes for cars (see the story here), that may finally change, and not a moment too soon.

The ugly
The other unpleasant discovery we made during our cross-country odyssey was that the mobile Internet isn’t quite as ubiquitous and reliable as we had assumed it would be. In addition to four AT&T smartphones, I had brought a Netgear Mingle wireless hotspot with 6 GB worth of data from Virgin Mobile, and my wife had a Nokia Lumia 2520 tablet with Verizon 4G. We figured we had it covered.

Once we left the interstate, however, all bets were off. After we headed north from Santa Fe toward the Navajo Nation, mobile data was about as scarce as herds of buffalo. With the exception of the area surrounding Las Vegas, it really didn’t return until we were within a few hours of San Francisco. As it turns out, many of the apps we were planning to use on the road wouldn’t work at all without a network connection.

Worse, AT&T suddenly began throttling our data plan because, as a company service representative explained to my livid spouse, we were “roaming too much.” As this is a family-friendly column, I cannot repeat what she said in response to that, but AT&T did ultimately fix it.

How the rest was won
We suffered a few other minor snafus en route. We were accosted by grifters in Memphis, our dog disappeared from a dive motel in North Little Rock for 15 anxious minutes, and we left our pillows in Amarillo. (If that’s not already the title of an awful country song, it should be.)

Otherwise, though, the trip went as smoothly as any of us could have hoped for. We got our kicks on Route 66 and visited parts of this country — from the Area 51 Alien Travel Center to Zion National Park — that we’d never have seen otherwise. The kids got an education in just how large and diverse their country truly is. Even our OCD dog enjoyed himself.

I tried to imagine doing this as a child with my family in our 1963 Rambler station wagon. No cellphones, no mobile Internet, no in-car entertainment system, and nothing to do in the back seat except count out-of-state license plates and listen to my parents argue about which route they should have taken.

I’m not sure I’d have survived. I know my family would not have had nearly as good a time.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.