Monday, February 10, 2014

Question of the day : do you use the auto-anything in your car?

My current ride has all the conveniences you'd expect nowadays - auto lights, auto wipers, climate control etc. But the longer I own the car, the less I find I'm using all these things. I turned off the auto lights on day-1 and fortunately, the "off" position in my car is truly "off" - not like most of the Ford and GM products where "off" means "auto" (ie. the light switch is utterly pointless). The auto wipers took a lot of getting used to. I find that most of the time though, I have them turned off too now. I can see if it's raining - I'm well capable of turning my own wipers on, just like I can tell when it's getting dark outside and turn my own lights on.
The one bit of auto-tech that I do use now is climate control. It is useful to be able to set one temperature and have the a/c controls determine the blend of hot and cold air to keep the interior at a nice temperature. Yes I'm capable of doing that myself too, but it's more aligned with something we're all used to at home - the central heating thermostat. (My house doesn't clean it's windows when it rains, or turn on the lights when it's dark).
Another bit of auto-tech that I experienced recently is something that'll never be in any car I own. I rented a car in the UK over Christmas that had active cruise control (a Volvo XC60). It scared the shit out of me because it's idea of "safe following distance" is way shorter than I'd like, and when I drive, I'm not exactly known for leaving a large gap from me to the car in front. Lets put it this way - I've never had a full on panic attack in a car, ever, until getting into that rental car. I decided to try the adaptive cruise function to see what it was all about. Deeply untrusting of this type of tech, I hovered my foot over the brake pedal the whole time. About an hour into the journey, we came across the usual traffic blockage. Traffic slowed, the Volvo began to slow accordingly. Clever. Cars started to shift lanes and the guy in front of me changed lanes too but I stayed where I was (getting into a queue it makes no difference which lane you're in). But then came the "oh shit" moment. The Volvo beeped at me and a little orange car symbol appeared on the dash. I later found out that this meant the adaptive system had "lost" the car in front - the guy who changed lanes. But what it did next defies belief. Despite three lanes of stopped traffic ahead, the Volvo actually began to accelerate back to the preset cruise speed. Suddenly the red 'following distance' warning came on and the Volvo then swapped from accelerating to braking - harder and harder until I eventually just stomped on the brake myself because I was utterly convinced at that point that we were having a guaranteed crash. The ABS came on as we pitched forwards pretty violently, and all manner of anti-collision lights came on on the dash coupled with warning beeps and alarms. Eventually came to a stop mercifully without hitting the truck in front. The whole thing must have happened in 3 to 4 seconds but once we'd stopped, I was sweating and having adrenaline-induced shakes. Now given that I ride a motorbike, it's not easy to cause that reaction in me. I'm used to being nearly killed all the time when I ride my bike - car drivers simply don't see motorcyclists. I know what that sudden shot of adrenaline feels like. But to have a car nearly kill me when I'm in it? That's a whole new level of scary that I don't ever want to experience again. Needless to say we took the car back and replaced it with something that had a little less of the 'Christine' streak in it.
It goes without saying that this experience has strengthened my attitude towards self-driving cars. Never again.