Car’s hi-tech driving aids no substitute for driver’s brain
Motoring editor Andy Russell finds out how hi-tech electronic aids make motoring safer but are don’t replace the driver’s brain
The electronics of a modern car are so hi-tech that I often wonder whether I am driving or being driven.
Many cars, affordable family models not just expensive exotica, now offer semi-autonomous driving, able to control acceleration and braking, even stopping, to maintain a set distance from the vehicle in front and keep in the lane travelling slowly in heavy traffic or cruising on a motorway.
The biggest danger is drivers being lulled into a false sense of security, assuming the car’s brain power makes their’s redundant.
The wonders of how electronic stability programme can brake individual wheels to overcome understeer and oversteer, bringing the car back under control, and anti-lock brakes were fully explained to me when I visited Mercedes-Benz World, next to the old Brooklands motor racing circuit at Weybridge in Surrey. As well as being a huge car dealership, it is also a Mercedes-Benz museum and runs various driving experiences on its handling track and off-road course.
Driving a 571hp, 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V8 petrol AMG E63 is daunting, even more so when you go on to a waterlogged section of track, slam on the brakes and take your hands off the wheel. At least the instructor knew what he was doing, and so did the car as it stopped in a straight line without skidding, despite travelling a lot further than it had on the dry track.
Then he made me turn gently to the right while emergency braking on the wet surface and, yes, the car steered safely proving I could avoid an obstacle without skidding while braking hard.
We simulated pulling out of a side road and accelerating away with all four wheels getting a grip as the car cleverly braked wheels and backed off engine power to maintain momentum to prevent the back end slewing round.
Then he switched off the stability and traction control systems and we did it all again. Things got completely out of control... and rather scary.
The car that had seemed so easy to control had, in my hands, switched off its brain and gained a will of its own. The slightest blip of throttle or dab of brakes had it sliding, slipping, slithering and often completely spinning. You turned the steering but the car just carried on.
You learned a lot about the car and even more about your own driving ability and that you did not want to get into this situation.
Anyone who buys a powerful Mercedes-AMG model is offered a free driving course and that’s very important to find out what the car can do and what you can’t.
As the instructor pointed out, if you were driving is such a way on the road, that the car had to keep stepping in to curb your excess, eventually you would lose it and hit something. A sobering thought.
It also proved that while you can control the car better in the wet those driving aids are not about allowing you to go faster than safe to do so in the first place.
The exercise filled me with confidence about the car’s abilities but made me realise that technology is no substitute for avoiding a tricky situation in the first place. That’s where the driver needs to use their brain.
Have you been grateful for a car’s electronics getting you out of trouble? Email firstname.lastname@example.org