Thursday, February 09, 2006

T#16: Driver Aids?


This is fun, in a way – though possibly a little dangerous also. Having reached 100 posts on Tuesday I’ve gotten to the point now that there’s so much stuff on here it’s increasingly possible for me to be self-referential. For example, I have previously expressed the opinion – albeit on a wholly unrelated topic – that if we the motoring public do not start taking the initiative and sorting some of the road related problems of our own creation, then someone else will come along and do it for us.

Full disclosure: I see this as A Bad Thing.

Unfortunately we’re collectively a lazy bunch of buggers (which possibly explains why socialism never caught on in this country), and it seems that actually quite a substantial proportion of us rather fancy the idea of not having to do things ourselves: a trend which the auto-manufacturers are latching onto like a winkle loves a wet rock. A colleague of mine described this as rain sensing wipers syndrome, but those are really rather harmless in comparison…

What we’re starting to get now is the subtle but definite extraction of vehicle control away from the unknowable impulses of the driver and into the electronic exactness of the machine. As with life in general, however, this isn’t exactly absolute in terms of good and bad – there are certain advantages in technological advancement that deserve recognition even while there are others that should be avoided for the sake of free will and liberty.

Tom Wolf’s fictionalised recounting of the burgeoning days of the American space program, The Right Stuff, vividly demonstrates the difference in priorities between the scientists and the astronauts. For the scientists, putting something into space was a matter of pure technology, and they developed systems that could theoretically do the job of getting up and down by themselves. It didn’t matter what was in the capsule – spaceman, monkey, dog, whatever. The astronauts, who were all pilots by training, seeing the threat this potentially posed to their status were all out against fully automated flight – they wanted to be able to control the spacecraft themselves regardless of the catastrophe in stasis this represented, where even a momentary lapse could end in flaming hell in the upper echelons of the atmosphere. The scientists (and the government behind them) wanted to protect their valuable science and engineering-stuffed spacecraft, the astronauts wanted to play chicken with their lives – on a giant thrill ride, yes, but in a greater sense it was about upholding the fundamental human value of freedom.

It’s this kind of circumstance that’s beginning to replicate with increasing velocity on the road. Complicating things somewhat, however, is that here we’re dealing not with highly-trained air force pilots, but the general public – to say this skews things slightly is probably one of the biggest understatements I’ll utter all year.

Some of the technology currently found in motor vehicles is now probably indispensable: ABS, traction control, stability systems, maybe even airbags if you want to go that far. We had occasion to speak to a Jaguar engineer earlier in the week, and one of the things he was critical about of current automotive journalism is the focus on finding ways of switching these electronic aids off; the “nannying” electronics, is the oft heard derision. Jaguar man’s – I’ll call him Keith – point was that really for the average motorist, journalism should be concerned with reviewing the way cars behave with this stuff in place, not at several degrees of socially irresponsible opposite lock.

I’ve got to say that I have been guilty of taking this attitude towards such instruments of progress. Mercedes Benz I have particularly derided for their massively high power outputs when combined with chassis that are overwhelmed and undriveable with the stability systems switched off. The anti-electronics argument runs the line that these artificial assistants are preventing people from learning how to drive properly. While I have a great deal of sympathy for this perspective, as someone who has spun a not very powerful rear-wheel drive car at less than 30mph on an icy winter morning (and ended up facing the wrong way down a dual carriageway; not actually as exciting as it sounds), I feel I can see both sides pretty clearly.

The one side says, with more experience I could perhaps have corrected the slide and recovered the spin – though the particular situation is complicated slightly by the fact that there was a vehicle on the inside of me at the time, and I didn’t want risk turning into it; the other suggests that had the car been fitted with traction and/or stability control, it would have solved the problem for me – though, again, in this instance it’s difficult to be sure as the surface was so slick I left no skid marks at all, even when nerfing the railings head-on. So, perhaps fundamental driving techniques can be considered vital either way, but in reality as a general rule (dubious, I know) the average driver is probably better off and safer with these electronic nursemaids than without. Even Gordon Murray – a man famous for his advocacy of unfettered driving purity – has swung round to this opinion, as a recent column of his in Evo makes out.

But – haha, did you spot that one? – there is a point where this assistance begins to go too far. Recent innovations – of which Siemens VDO’s version, currently doing the rounds on the net, is the latest – in parking technology are an example. Parking sensors I’ll maybe let go; I can understand anyone not really wishing to unintentionally restyle their rear bumper, especially when many modern car designs make it difficult to determine their exact length from inside (though I’m less certain about the need for ones which are audible outside of the vehicle – Toyota Corolla – and the dangers involved in over-reliance are again available in situations such as when one manufacturer accidentally applied too thick a layer of paint to a batch of super-minis and the systems simply failed to work. Oh, and this might actually be a good thing for some of the fugly aftermarket bodykits currently in fashion).

However, the Siemens’ thing goes a stage further, and is a series of sensors and other unnecessary bulk-upping bumf that will locate a suitably sized space and parallel park the car in it for you. Lexus and BMW already have such toys on some of their top-end executive barges – the fun thing about the BM system though is that you do get to control the throttle. But is this really necessary – I mean, really? Diminishing driving skill even further all for the sake of the effort involved in picking a big enough gap and slotting your car into it. Sheesh.

More significantly, there’s now the really fabulous Honda ADAS. The official press release fails to explain it (seriously), but ADAS stands for Advanced Driver Assist System, combining Active Cruise Control (ACC) and Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS) to create a car with autopilot. It only works on motorways and roads with strongly laned carriageways, but using a millimetre wave radar in the nose and a camera by the rearview mirror the top-spec Accord – coming in March – can drive itself.

Amazing.

But very very scary. Honda claims it actually ups concentration and awareness, and that the car is never fully out of its occupant’s control – a beep reminds the driver that a tap on the steering wheel is required every 10 seconds or the system will disengage… disengage? Yes, exactly. As someone who is fully able to hit the snooze button on his alarm clock while barely even registering its insistence, I fear that there is something of an obvious flaw in this otherwise seamlessly utopian vision: what happens if the driver falls asleep?

I appreciate this is a danger in motorway driving anyway, but activity surely increases alertness; with no scientific proof to support me I am none-the-less prepared to speculate that part of the reason Honda’s study shows an increase in driver focus and capacity is that the sensation is initially so odd. As with anything, surely familiarity breeds contempt (lovely cliché in this instance), and over time concentration will drop. It is a fantastically clever, and evidently successfully executed piece of innovation, but like notorious depressive, sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, I can’t help imagining the consequences should the ingenuity go awry. To quote one of the characters from one of my favourite movies: ‘I dunno, Tom; sounds expensive.’ In a very metallic, noisy kind of way, with – what’s that? An echo of litigation and corporate regret…?

Where does it stop? There’s no way to even begin guessing at the answer to this. Soon we may well be travelling in little more than privately owned train carriages, each car following the other in binary-led, computer controlled precision. The government and the car companies will undoubtedly see this as safer, but another of the freedoms we all so well enjoy will be lost – it’s about time that we stopped taking the privileges involved with driving for granted. The era of the “open road” will otherwise be over, and we might as well stay at home and succumb to the internet’s inevitable ascendancy as the answering prayer to all of our needs. Electronic super highway? There’s a risk of this becoming the literal interpretation of somebody’s dream for us all.

Links:

T#5: Aneurism [internal]

Honda UK Builds an Accord with Autopilot @ DailyTech

Siemens VDO Park Mate to end your parking woes @ Newlaunches.com


Picture is an official Jaguar Press Shot of the XK, via Newspress.

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