Monday, June 26, 2017

Even racing drivers get red mist

If you didn't watch the F1 race from Baku yesterday, spoiler alert.
The face-off between Hamilton and Vettel yesterday demonstrates that even the best trained, fittest drivers at the top of their game suffer from red mist. Hamilton had been told to maintain 10 car lengths behind the safety car twice, and twice he didn't. Under the second safety car, he brake-checked Vettel, who then ran into the back of him and then made it so much worse by going around Hamilton and deliberately bumping wheels with him whilst giving him the finger.
Vettel got a ten second drive-through penalty - totally agree with that. But Hamilton got nothing for the brake-check. In the end it didn't matter - Hamilton had to come in for a replacement cockpit bolster and once he came out behind Vettel, he lost his fire.
When it comes to dangerous driving, where do you draw the line in racing? Vettel risked both their cars when he deliberately bumped wheels with Hamilton. But then so did Hamilton with the brake-check. In my mind, Hamilton should have been handed two separate penalties - the first for not maintaining proper distance from the safety car (twice), and the second for what he did to Vettel.
Apart from that, Baku was a good event again - I hope it stays on the F1 calendar.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Auto high beams

AHB, Auto high beams, high-beam assist - there's a dozen different ways car makers sell this particular driver aid and for the first time in years, it's something I'd actually want in a car. I was in England last week and had a rented car with auto high beams. On dark country roads and unlit sections of main roads, high beams are a must-have but you need to be on-point about dipping them when there's oncoming traffic. AHB systems do that for you. Rather than flick the light control between high and low, there's an intermediate setting for 'auto high' which dips the beams back to main headlights when the car senses something coming the other way (or the tail lights of the car in front) and then goes back to high beams automatically when the system considers it safe to do so.
This is a total godsend when driving on dark roads as you can concentrate on driving and not worry about dazzling oncoming drivers.
Long-time readers will know I'm not exactly the world's biggest fan of driver aids (I won't even get in a car with auto-braking and lane-change assist after that disastrous Volvo experience a couple of years ago). But AHB is something I'd actually want in a new car.
Side note: the owners manual on this particular car (Skoda Octavia) was less than useless when it came to explaining what the AHB system was. I had to figure it out by trial and error.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Drivers are prone to error, but so are coders.

I'm finding it difficult to understand why, in an era when so many people interact directly with software on a regular basis — and know first hand how temperamental and buggy it very often is — we are so uncritical of the idea of the driverless car.
People are fond of saying that most car accidents are the result of human error. Consider this : 100% of software defects are the result of human error. Untold thousands of person-hours have been spent building operating systems (both smartphone and desktop) and the programs that run on them: systems that have a prescribed set of machine-readable inputs. And still we get bugs, software updates that render our computers unusable, viruses and other malware, the Blue Screen Of Death, the Spinning Beachball Of Death, core dumps, system panics, and the rest of it. No one has shown us why we should believe that the software running driverless cars — where the set of possible inputs is much larger and much less predictable — would be any better.
A driver-augmentation system that helps with lanekeeping in a prepared environment? Sure. Heads-up displays to conserve and focus driver attention? You bet. Awareness-management systems that alert drivers to potential trouble? Absolutely — as long as that much-maligned but still miraculous human situational intelligence is there to quarterback the whole thing.
Here's a funny thing about driverless cars and safety: people talk about humans being inherently dangerous behind the wheel, but we know for a fact that not all humans are equally dangerous behind the wheel. Even better, we know which humans tend to be most dangerous behind the wheel — because insurance companies know it, and they convey that data to us in the form of the premiums they charge. By a significant margin, the most dangerous drivers — that is, the most expensive to insure — are young people in their 20's. Want safer roads? We could start by raising the minimum driving age or enforcing better driver training and stricter testing.
Software is written by humans that work for corporations. Delphi, Intel, Volvo, Google - it doesn't matter. Reality check: corporations are driven by the bottom line. I don't want to be sitting in a car knowing that the corporation behind the software hit some quarterly deadline by taking shortcuts to get something out the door to ensure the board got it's compensation and the shareholders got their dividends. This happens every day. That's the reality of driverless cars.
If my smart home thermostat has a bug in it, the house might be too cold or too hot, but it's has zero potential to kill me. That is simply not true when it comes to driverless cars.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Right of way is there for a reason

Right of way, or priority if you're American, is a basic driving concept that exists for a reason. For example when you're on a fast main road, you have right of way over people turning from side roads. You'd think it would be obvious but too many people today don't understand that.
Enter this Morgan 4/4 driver who, rather than wait in the central reservation for he traffic to pass, decided he had right of way instead and went on to cause a pretty substantial accident. The instant karma is so gratifying to watch.
Weirdly - and if you have any more info I'd like to know HOW this happened - the police apparently found the Peugeot driver to blame! Despite the Peugeot having right of way, despite the Morgan not looking, not giving way, not stopping in the designated area, despite the video evidence of it clearly being the Morgan's fault, somehow the police blamed the other driver.
This accident was 100% the Morgan driver's fault and the Peugeot driver should not be shouldering any of the blame or cost.

Monday, May 22, 2017

"Magic vision" wipers?

Sometimes car companies come out with stuff which is so bizarre you wonder if any common sense was involved at all. Mercedes are advertising their "Magic Vision" wiper system at the moment, which seems to have been designed by a committee of pedestrians rather than anyone who actually drives a car:

There's a couple of problems here.
The first, obviously, is that they only spray on the down-stroke, meaning the up-stroke will be a skipping, scratching, scraping bounce across a dry windshield.
The second is that there's now 50 nozzles to clog up with calcium instead of just two. The chances of all those sprayers working like they do in the video, in the real world, after a month of use, is zero.
Third, you're being locked into the MB parts chain. You can't go and replace your wiper blades with a better product from your local parts store. And blade/arm mechanisms with built-in sprayers? Yeah those will cost a bomb to replace.
But perhaps the biggest issue I have with this gimmick is that they think that the washer spray interrupts your view of the road, and that it's distracting. The wipers themselves are far more distracting than the washer spray. I hate driving in the rain with wipers going. Instead, I apply RainX to my windshield every couple of months. At any speed much above 20mph, the airflow across the windscreen clears the water off it. At motorway speeds, you barely even see the rain because it's blown up and off the screen so quickly as soon as it hits. On occasion I've been able to do 500 mile trips in the rain without ever once using my wipers.
So Mercedes - if you want to solve the distraction problem - figure out how to permanently treat a windshield with a water repellant what won't wear off. A bonded hydrophobic coating. THEN you'll solve this problem.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Automatic brakes and car washes.

Here's an interesting side effect of all the meddlesome technology finding its way into modern cars: many of them won't go through automatic car washes now without some considerable knowledge and planning by the driver.
The biggest issue is auto-hold parking brakes. Because people are idiots (google for how many people get run over by their own car every day), more and more manufacturers are adding this 'feature' to their cars. Basically, if the engine is running (or off) and the car is in neutral, the parking brake is automatically applied. This means for the conveyor-belt type car washes, where (you guessed it) the car needs to be in neutral with your foot off the brake (or you need to be out of the car with the engine off), the car won't move because it's decided the parking brake needs to be on.
Many vehicles have defeats and overrides for this but none of them are simple, none have these instructions readily published and easy-to-find in the owner's manual, and all are multi-step processes. Some cars - for example the full-size Range Rover Sport - don't have any published method to do this, so if you own one of those, you're not going through an automated car wash whether you want to or not.
The other big problem is all the automation that is creeping in. Pedestrian collision avoidance and low-speed auto-braking might work well when you're crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the city, but when you're crawling along in a car wash tunnel, the brushes, water jets and sponge fins all register as obstructions and the car will automatically apply the brakes even if you're in neutral.
The end result of all this is that more and more vehicles are being damaged in automatic car wash tunnels because they're stopping dead in their tracks (or flat refusing to enter). The ones that stop dead in the tunnels can end up causing pile-up accidents because the conveyor systems might want to just keep pushing the cars behind through the tunnel. Newer systems can detect stalled vehicles and shut the tunnel down, but older ones can't.
If you're expecting the employees at the car wash to know what to do, think again. You're on your own here and almost every automatic car wash will have an iron-clad policy that they're not liable for any damage, and you accept that condition by purchasing a wash.
So be warned. If you drive any of the 33 cars on the (growing) list in the following link, you're in for an adventure (or an accident) if you go to an automatic car wash:
33 vehicles that need special help to drive through a car wash.