So much is changing in the automotive industry that it’s difficult to keep up with all the latest developments.
The introduction of ‘new’ technologies into modern motor vehicles seems to be accelerating exponentially and it’s quite likely that by time I finish writing this, it’ll be out of date!
Let’s start by taking a little trip back in time to 2006. This year saw the standard fitment of ABS to all new cars. ABS had been around for a considerable length of time before 2006 and many more expensive vehicles had been equipped with it (or had it available as an option) for several years prior to that.
The purpose of ABS is quite simple: it’s there to allow a driver to brake hard whilst maintaining steering control (something he or she would lose if the front wheels were to lock, i.e. stop rotating).
So it’s a jolly useful bit of kit. That said, it does have some disadvantages. Because it works by releasing and re-applying the brakes, it means that in some circumstances the vehicle will travel further than it might otherwise do. It can also be pretty unpleasant in really slippery conditions such as ice or snow, as it senses the wheels have locked up and therefore releases the brakes. The more slippery the conditions, the earlier the point at which the system intervenes, meaning that the vehicle will simply keep going…and going.
In general terms, ABS is a real boon to safety if it’s asked (by the driver) to do what it’s designed to do. However, dear reader, how many drivers do you know who have ever had any training in how to use the system correctly? I’m guessing very few.
Arguably, this widespread ignorance doesn’t really matter. But don’t they sometimes say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing?
And that’s before we get on to Electronic Stability Programmes, Brake Assist, Electronic Brake Distribution, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure, Steer Assist, Auto Parking…
So, let’s attempt to put a bit of structure around the seemingly myriad innovations that we drivers will have to become accustomed to or, indeed, have to contend with.
Recently, I came upon a driver of a Mercedes E class estate who openly admitted that his Achilles heel in driving was his inability to park. Indeed, he offered up that he would often ask his wife to park once they’d arrived at their destinations. He enjoyed his time with us, not least because we were able to pass on some nifty little ‘tricks’ to help him with his parking back in the real world.
As it happened, one of his colleagues who was also on the day had exactly the same type of car and said colleague, right at the end of the day, dropped in the revelation that actually that particular Mercedes model can park itself and proceeded to demonstrate how to work the system.
The driver with the Achilles heel had had his car for nearly three years but quite clearly had not got around to finding out what the car’s merits (or maybe demerits) were. A simple flick through the owner’s manual would have saved him much grief, would have allowed him to park in places he probably otherwise would have believed too difficult and saved himself the amused and barely under-the-surface ridicule of his peers!
We can smile but the references to ABS training (or lack of it) and Achilles do throw up a number of potential issues. The more that cars (and vans and trucks) can do for us, the less we have to think for ourselves. Modern motor vehicles are already very cossetting of their occupants, divorcing us increasingly from the outside environment. Certainly increasingly cars have the wherewithal to make the roads a safer place but are we being lulled into a false sense of security? There has been some research which appears to show that as cars get ‘cleverer’, drivers are becoming more stupid.
Braking systems, for example, are much more efficient in stopping cars but the drivers’ reaction times are getting slower. Arguably this is a feature of modern life and not just of driving. Instant gratification, the ability to find out (or ‘know’) things instantaneously via the interweb can mean, some would argue, that the need to think for ourselves has become diluted.
Is this, then, a major strand in the thinking behind the rush to go autonomous? The idea that we should all be released from the burden of driving because we are fundamentally too stupid to do it safely on our own?
Techno-wars have moved into a new gear, with Volvo being the first mainstream manufacturer to publicly state that all its next generation vehicles will eschew diesel and petrol-only propulsion systems in favour of (at least) hybrid power units.
All the major manufacturers are exploring autonomous concepts, with a number of real life pilot studies being ok’d by national and local government around the UK.
It seems, in order to ensure access to the colossal amount of innovation, expertise, data, products and materials that’ll be required to bring about this huge change (make no mistake, this will result in cultural change almost as much as it will technological), manufacturers will increasingly likely be looking at sharing technologies, experience and parts. So it’s quite possible we’ll see a readjustment of the main players, in terms of size and market share. Indeed, perhaps this has something to do with amalgamations such as the PSA Group and Vauxhall/Opel. It’s also likely that some ‘new’ players’ names will enter our awareness as unexpected developments occur or as solutions to problems so far unimagined are brought to the market.
For instance, who ever thought there’d be a need for cars which can park themselves (see above!)?
Not only that but they can stop themselves as well – sometimes when the driver least expects it!
Case in point happened to me not so long ago. I was driving a top-of-the-range SUV equipped with radar and collision avoidance systems. The normal driver of said vehicle did say to me that he questioned the worth of some of the hi-tech add-ons and I could see what he meant. I was negotiating a roundabout (a fairly small, rural one) and it so happened that the kerbing to the edge of the road was unusually high. As I changed lanes, preparing to exit the roundabout the vehicle braked sharply and came to a stop. Fortunately there was no one immediately behind me and I was able to move off again in very short order. What appears to have taken place was that, just as I was exiting the roundabout, for a brief moment the car was facing the high kerbing and identified it as a stationary object and, I guess, it ‘assumed’ that it needed to intervene by way of an emergency stop.
Now, I guess it’s possible to override or switch off the system but the chap whose car it was certainly had no idea how to do that.
So, a question has to be: Are drivers being patronised and ‘dumbed down’ by manufacturers who want to take the intellectual enjoyment out of driving and well away from the likes of you and me?
Or is it all about our safety?
Secondary safety systems, i.e. those that come into play after things have started going wrong, have been around for quite a while now. ABS, which we’ve already referred to elsewhere, has been standard fit on all cars and vans since 2006 and Electronic Stability Programmes (other names are available, such as DSC) since autumn 2015. Seatbelt pre-tensioners, airbags, brake force distribution systems and traction control to name a few others.
If you’ve never had to resort to any of these, then you are doing pretty well!
Primary safety systems are predominantly geared towards helping drivers to avoid the sorts of incidents which would result in the use or deployment of the secondary safety systems.
Relatively ‘new’ innovations include (but certainly won’t be limited to) such things as:
· Adaptive cruise control. There are a number of ways the ‘adaptations’ work, from keeping safe distances from vehicles in front to, via GPS recognition of speed-limited areas, limiting speeds within those areas
· Blind spot alerts. Increasingly, vehicles are being fitted with devices which alert a driver to the fact that another road user is in proximity of the vehicle but which may be out of sight to the driver in his or her mirrors as a result of the vehicle’s ‘blind spots’
· On a similar note, cross traffic systems alert a driver to other approaching vehicles/road users when reversing, for example out of a multi-storey car parking bay
· Attention Assist (or similar). These systems are mindful of the serious potential consequences of driver fatigue and, using a number of set parameters, will alert a driver when, through physical signs or simple duration of driving, it is advised to take a break from driving
· Lane departure alerts and steer assist. These systems are growing in complexity and capability all the time with semi-autonomous steering which prevents (or merely warns)
· drivers from inadvertently straying out of lane. During normal operation, the system can keep the vehicle central in its lane or, when lane markings aren’t clear, will follow the path of the vehicle in front. Some systems also prevent the vehicle from overtaking on the ‘wrong’ side. These more complicated versions will also work in association with distance-sensing and adaptive cruise control functions
· Something else that will be needed for autonomous vehicles will be for them to understand their environment and to this end there are already traffic sign and signal recognition systems available. Again, just how involved these abilities become in the driving itself is something of a variable. For example, does the vehicle merely advise its driver of, say, a red traffic light or does it go the whole hog and do the stopping as well? And what happens if there’s another very closely following vehicle?
· Ah, that’s maybe where the rearward-facing camera comes in?
· In fact, 360 degree cameras are already fitted to some vehicles, so you effectively have a separate pair of eyes, should you choose to use them. On the other hand, it could be easily argued that such a facility could be yet another distraction
So, our vehicles will very soon (if they aren’t already) be bristling with new technologies.
Some, no doubt over time will beg the question ‘what did we do before [insert clever gismo here] came along? How did we manage?’
Some others may just fade away as having been fads.
What is inescapable is the inexorable pace and content of the changes in train.
Probably some are to be viewed with an eye to caution. For example, do we really need wi-fi connectivity in the car?
Personally, I’d do away with hands-free phone technologies as well. After all it’s the distraction of the conversation which kills, not the equipment
Other things to get rid of? These are personal but a little cheer of support from you, dear reader, would be most appreciated:
· Day time running lights…would be fine if they illuminated anything (they don’t and using them at dusk or in fog or even at night is just plain daft) and if the rear lights came on as well (they don’t)
· Auto headlights. The ones you sort of assume will come on in fog but don’t
· Three-click, light touch direction indicators
· Over-the-top ‘pre-flight’ bells, alarms, chimes, bleeps etc.
· Unnecessary alerts: sometimes there’s a reason for having the key in the ignition and the door open at the same time!
· Keyless keys!
To close this section, a couple of thoughts for a technology which may or may not assist with what is likely to be a fairly rocky transitional road between where we are now and where we’ll be in just a few short years.
Those of you who have (or will) experience Automotional practical, in-vehicle training will understand what it’s like to have a trainer with you who is asking questions about the motivations that underlie your driving behaviours and will make suggestions as to how you might reduce driving risk still further.
Your second pair of eyes is not a camera but a sentient being and one who has, at the top of his or her priorities, your safety tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
So, how about all the best of the modern, primary safety systems coming together with intelligent questions to the driver?
· Do you know what’s behind you?
· Why are you travelling so closely to the vehicle in front?
· Why have you given away your escape route?
· Where would you say is the best place to park in this car park?
· How could you maximise your view ahead?
· What was the last warning sign you passed?
· How many of the parked vehicles you just drove past had occupants on board?
· Is the driver of that car on the left looking at you?
· Do you really think that your tyres can cope with these wet conditions at this speed?
· Etc. Etc.