Today I’m taking a train from Amsterdam to Paris, a trip I’ve done several times in the last few years. Looking out the windows as we pass by canals bordered by tall leaning houses, I am reminded of our last trip to France six months earlier.
We drove down to Caen (pronounced Kah) for five weeks in Normandy. Since we spend most of the year in Utrecht, where public transit is excellent and ubiquitous, we don’t own a car. We just rent one when the need presents itself. For the last few years, all the “car share” short term rentals have been adopting fully electric vehicles, which we really love (incidentally, the BMW I3 is an excellent short range electric vehicle). So, we decided to give electric a shot for a longer road trip.
We needed to take quite a bit with us, including the dog and his crate, as we were renting a place for over a month. So we wanted something a bit roomy. The Aiways U5 was definitely the cheapest option available in EVs in its size class. I did a little preliminary research. On paper the car looked really good. It had relatively fast charging capabilities and a decent range. But, frankly, those sponsored YouTubers can go take a long walk off a short pier. I’m going to give you the DL on this monstrous atrocity in User Experience. While the car provides an okay range (though a pretty far margin off what is advertised) and a good amount of space, after a month of driving The U5 around I would have gladly traded those features for a car that didn’t feel the need to babysit me, and do so poorly.
The Aiways U5 is a terrible vehicle to spend any significant stretch of time driving. My opinion is primarily due to three features. Their implementations of Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Keeping Assist are subpar at best. Given its druthers the U5 drives like an old granny who can’t accurately judge the distance and speed of other vehicles. My wife got annoyed with me more than once for the hard braking that the car executed during highway driving. But the real kicker, the feature that just ruined my enjoyment of this road trip, was their (unadvertised) “Nanny System.” Aiways calls this atrocity the Driver Fatigue Recognition system.
Airways have a number of cameras observing the driver and interior of the cabin. I’m guessing here, but I think the one to the left of the driver is creating a depth map of the driver’s upper body, probably using infrared. It then uses this depth map data to try to tell whether the driver is looking where and behaving how they are supposed to. Here is how Aiways describes the feature in the user manual for the U5:
“The driver fatigue recognition function collects information about the driver’s face, limbs, and other related information through a camera located on the A-pillar, and combines data about the state of the driving and other information to determine whether the driver is fatigued. If the system judges that you are currently fatigued, the vehicle will send out corresponding text, voice and other notifications. Smoking, receiving or making phone calls and other behaviours that affect driving safety will also be registered.”
Yeah, sounds good. You’re imagining a car that keeps you awake if you “over do it” and it looks like you might be falling asleep at the wheel, right? That bit about smoking and other unsafe behaviors is weird but probably a non-issue, after all you don’t smoke…
Ha! This feature was the absolute bane of my existence for the five weeks that I had this vehicle. It started around somewhere near the Belgian border. My wife pointed out some particularly cute looking cows, as she is prone to do, and when I turned my head to look (briefly) the car said, “Please keep looking ahead while driving.” Okay, fair I did turn to look out the side window. But then…
Car: “Please keep looking ahead while driving.”
Me: “Yeah, okay I heard you the first time.”
Car: “Please keep looking ahead while driving.”
Me: “I am…”
Car: “Please keep looking ahead while driving.”
Me: “I AM!”
Car: “Please keep looking ahead while driving… Please keep looking ahead while driving… Please keep-”
Me: “What the hell is happening!?”
Keep in mind that each time it plays this audio line it is interrupting the podcast I’m listening to every 10 seconds or so, which just made the whole experience even more annoying. Eventually it stopped though, maybe after two or three minutes of this behavior. However I quickly discovered that anything would set it off, not just my head position. It seemed particularly susceptible to changes in lighting. It wasn’t just a one trick pony either. Oh no, it had even more annoying things to say which illustrated just how bad the car’s body tracking really was. After a few hour of its normal script it decided to change things up, and came up with this doozy:
“Please keep looking ahead while driving, and don’t smoke.”
First of all, I don’t smoke. But, if I did, I’m an adult and can make that decision for myself. It isn’t illegal to smoke while driving and whether the car thinks it is a good idea or not I don’t really care to hear its opinion. The car had other things to say as well..
“Please keep looking ahead while driving, and don’t make phone calls,” was a particularly annoying one. First of all, I wasn’t on the phone, but also, if I wanted to talk on the phone while driving they provide a bluetooth in-put and output audio integration so I can do that hands free.
Again, keep in mind that none of these admonitions were delivered only a single time. The car would go on and on about not smoking, driving me absolutely nuts. Then, as we were pulling away from a charging station where we had just spent 30 minutes hanging out by the picnic tables and walking the dog, the U5 busts out something along the lines of, “It is dangerous to drive when tired. Take a break.” It said this to me on a regular interval of about 30 seconds for the next half an hour!
Beyond these annoyances, there seemed to be some kind of memory leak associated with the feature. After a few hours of continuous operation it seemed to serve audio prompts from the Driver Fatigue Recognition system more regularly, and it would have errors in the serving interval. This means the car would start saying things like:
“Please keep, Please, Please, Please keep, Please keep looking ahead while driving.”
We met a couple from Germany who had just purchased their U5, and when I asked them about these features it led to a long conversation about how terrible the nagging could be. Also, the fact this issue exists makes other issues I might normally shrug off even more annoying, like the U5 giving a shorter range than advertised (Aiways advertises a 400+ km range for the U5, it’s more like 350 km city driving and 290 highway). During our chat, the new owner was trying to rationalize all these things away as small inconveniences for how much car they got for the price. And sure, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving when you can’t get a full refund on a car you drove off the lot. But, it seemed like he was trying to convince himself as much as me.
The worst usability crime associated with this Driver Monitoring feature imho is the users complete inability to turn it off. It’s just unacceptable that if there is a way it is undocumented. And, if there isn’t a way then that is a breach of a social contract between the user and the designers. You should always allow users freedom and control over features like these.
During the time that I had it, the U5 updated its firmware. I hoped this would lead to a major change that would correct the problems with its Driver Fatigue Recognition system. To my dismay it had no perceivable effect whatsoever. The good news here is that, since it can do wireless updates, they could address these issues at any time and take the U5 from a 2 star to 4 star rating (in my book) overnight.
I’m going to cut Aiways a little slack here now. Honestly, it’s impressive they have this car on the market in Europe at all. The company was founded in China in 2017 and just five years later I was renting their vehicle from a company in the Netherlands. That’s impressive (though also a little sus). But, that is also barely anytime to train the underlying AI that drives this system, and the other driver assist capabilities. And it isn’t like these features were rolled out recently, that AI has been handling them for years already.
Here is a summary of some Pros and Cons of the U5:
- It’s cheap for an EV
- Haptic feedback for touch controls
- Great parallel parking camera
- Auto locking/unlocking system
- Above average charging speeds for vehicles in its price range
- The U5 has a ton of space
- No decent cell phone holder (seriously, car makers in general, just build one in)
- Really bad bluetooth re-pairing
- Lower than advertised range
- The car brakes and accelerates so poorly it pisses off other drivers
- A lot of the UI flows are unintuitive and burry features you might want to modify while driving
- The U5’s Driver Fatigue Recognition system will drive you absolutely nuts
I think this is a great car, for someone else. Maybe someone buying a first car for their young, untrustworthy, new driver. Maybe a parent who suspects their child has taken up smoking in secret. The U5 has a lot of nice features for the price point. But, for me, it’s an awful nanny bot that seems hellbent on driving me nuts while I’m driving it. I genuinely am concerned about how much road rage this car could generate while trying to “protect” its users. But, Aiways can fix this, and should.