ESP: I see a future of safer cars
Only mankind contemplates its own demise. As one colorful colleague put it to a table of motoring journalists: "You never know when an anvil is going to drop out of the sky onto your head." Rather than being sobered by this bleak acknowledgement of fate's blind supremacy, the table lustily toasted the sentiment with the cynical humor of those whose job it is to routinely, and happily, place themselves in personal peril.
Evaluating cars is, of course, no more heroic than avoiding falling anvils, and it's about as essential to human progress as discovering a new way to stuff sausages, but it can be more dangerous to health and wellbeing than the average occupation. And that's just the writing part. Far more gut-churning than a fast lap of the Nordschleife is a blank page and a looming deadline.
Still, there are aspects of driving cars that fall outside the limits of rational self-interest. A new car on an unfamiliar racetrack in the rain would rate high on the list of stupid things to do, but I've done it often. Crashed only the once. Then there's the usually safe ride in a race car with a professional driver, but that kind of activity inevitably leads to near-misses, and I've had a few too many of those to be really comfortable in the co-pilot's seat-no matter who's behind the wheel. But perhaps the most death-defying of all our journalistic duties is climbing into a car on a press launch with an inept driving partner. Combine ineptitude with the certainty, shared by most motoring hacks, that they're excellent drivers, and the result can be The Drive from Hell.
On most press launches, two drivers share a car. The smart move is to plan ahead and line up your co-driver well before the event. Tarry too long and you might end up on that hellish drive, which can last as long as all day or as short as one awkwardly-apexed turn. I've experienced both.
The latest episode occurred on a winding road through the foothills of the Austrian Alps, somewhere between Munich and Kitzbhel. I'd belted in beside a longtime friend and serious journalist, but I felt a tremor of trepidation, as his driving skills have forever been compromised by an inability to concentrate on such little niceties as steering and braking. In other words, he never shuts up and so spends lots of time recovering from the inattention caused by the endless monologue.
When it comes to survival, it generally pays to speak plainly. (Watch out, there's an anvil falling out of the sky!) If my co-driver's attention is wavering, or he's in way over his head, I'll figure out a way to slow the pace, say something disarming like: "Slow the F down! We're having dinner tonight at a Michelin four-star, and I want to live to enjoy it." Or: "My will states that whoever kills me takes custody of my nine children."
I waited too long on that Austrian road. Before my suppressed fears could find release, we were heading across the centerline and straight into the path of an oncoming car. Facing what seemed to be an unavoidable head-on collision, I let loose a hoarse scream of terror while my mind reeled off a list (I kid you not) of the safety features in the new Mercedes-Benz S63 we were driving. Would all the airbags deploy? Would Pre-Safe live up to its billing?
I never found out. Even though those systems and others were doubtlessly poised for action, they were never needed. The car instead achieved the prime safety directive, avoiding the collision itself, due to the genius of ESP (electronic stability program). Sensing that the S63's mass had shifted beyond safe limits, ESP applied the brakes in so delicate and precise a manner that the car's severe yaw was brought into balance and our now tongue-tied driver was able to steer the big sedan back into its rightful lane, just barely avoiding contact with the oncoming Opel and its wide-eyed occupants.
This technology has been offered on Mercedes-Benz vehicles for years and recently became, by federal mandate, a required component of all new cars by 2009. It's the best order to come down from our safety overlords since seatbelts became required, and, it's predicted, will result in at least a third fewer fatal accidents-with an up to 80 percent reduction in fatal roll-overs by SUVs.
Let's not go overboard, however, and prevent such stability programs from being switched off for the right road and driver. But when I'm in the seat that doesn't come with steering wheel and pedals, let's keep them on, OK?