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By Doug Stokes
The last two cars that I’ve driven both had their respective company’s version of what some call “lane departure warning” and others call “lane assist”. The cars in question (the new Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL, Premium and the new Chevrolet Cruze Premium) were both smartly-styled, solid rides, top of the line, 4-door compact sedans with strong turbocharged 4-cylinder engines and very accurate automatic transmissions.
And both steered themselves. Right…hands off steering that, in both cases, was as eerie as it was mechanical-robotic in its function.
The idea is really to alert tired, inattentive, and otherwise not-fully-concentrating-on-what-they-are-doing drivers to the fact that they are not staying in their intended lane.
Taking “lane minding” one step beyond a stern warning, these new systems sense the stray and then “assist” the driver by actually steering the car; making (more like “suggesting” if one is holding the wheel) course corrections following the marked lanes on freeways and city streets with a strange machine-like tick, tick, tick of the steering wheel, making course corrections in quick little bites (in the case of the Volkswagen, and wide meanders from one edge of the lane markers to the other in the Chevrolet) rather than the sort of (relatively) smooth steering input that a human driver might apply.
Driving both cars, short distances hands off (but very near!) the steering wheel made me think about what my back fence neighbor, Marty said when we were talking about automated automobiles:
“… People, who don’t want to drive, should ride the bus.”
But of course, you’re right. These new assist systems might well keep someone from crossing over the center line and being involved in a deadly accident. No argument here.
On the other hand, leaning on the system to stay more or less in the middle of the lane and/or almost abdicating control to it qualifies as pure folly.
Both the VW and the Chevy had a hard time following lanes that were not well-marked (or would refuse the task altogether). In fact, in my fully non-scientific study, both cars seemed quite disinterested in yellow traffic lane markings, following only well-defined white lines it seemed. By the way, both cars seemed to need two lines (one on each side of the “lane”) to follow with any success.
There were many roads, my own street in fact, where there was no “assist” offered from either car, I could (checking that no one was coming of course) simply aim the car toward the center line and wait for the notification and steering help. None came.
Both cars had other automated safety devices, collision warning, (automatic) braking, blind spot monitoring, and more. And each had slightly different characteristics brand to brand.
Of course you’ve already asked yourself the question that I was leading up to: “What happens if one of those systems (the blind spot monitor, as an example) takes a crap … er, nap and doesn’t tell you about that soccer mom (with her own two kids and the neighbor kid from next door aboard) are right next to you when you?”
And I add, what happens when a driver gets to relying on a lane-minder (“assist”) system and becomes tired, momentarily distracted or “impaired” and happens to drive onto a road that’s poorly-marked (like the one in front of my house)?
Similarly, what happens when mud or snow or road grime fouls one of the vehicle’s critical receptors and the information that it receives is garbled or broken?
Of course, there are cars on the market right now that have systems that are far more than just a momentary lane assist or a flashing light that tells you that you’re coming up on the car ahead too quickly for its liking (or algorithms). If you’ve not already, check out all the on-line videos showing people driving Teslas and doing everything* that you can do in a safely parked car—all while rolling down the highway, in traffic, at highway speeds.
There are already TV adverts showing vehicles stopping behind a car and avoiding a rear-ender (whew, that was close!) in front of a school and on the freeway.
Yes, of course, we rely on tech all the time, we put our lives into the technical hands of fully-automated elevators in 50-story buildings, and ride comfortably in the sky at 35,000 feet in airplanes made from thin sheets of aluminum and exotic composites, are sure that the GFI in the bathroom will work first time, every time, expect that air-bags lying dormant in 10 year-old cars will “deploy” within milliseconds, and fully trust a train (like the TGV in France) to stay on the rails (with us inside) at 300+ kilometers an hour.
And, of course, in each case above, we’re not driving; we’re not in command of the moving device or vehicle. There’s a difference, and it is big one.
As Marty said, “If you don’t want to DRIVE a car, take the damn bus.” (I added the “damn”). – Stokes
*Yeah, I’m sure that there’s even a video of THAT… all of the clips that I saw were G-rated like playing cards, riding in the back seat, reading, eating, and pretending to take a quick nap (replete with pillows and blankets).
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