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New Automotive Technologies - Smart Cars, Stupid People

Les Bidrawn
Feb 24, 2011

I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I love what it can do for me and yet hate becoming reliant on it. It never fails: I’ll be in the middle of transferring 12 gigs worth of photos and our ftp site will decide to explode. Or trying to print a quick picture only to have the printer run out of ink. Or my home PC will decide to update itself, leaving half the programs I actually use worthless.

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When everything works, it’s awesome. But lately, I find myself having fewer technically awesome days.

Obviously cars don’t evolve in a vacuum and much of their systems are augmented with computers. I’m nervous already. What if a system fails, does it reboot or are you left on the side of the road, or worse?

In truth, the programming carmakers use is 99.9 percent stable. I learned this during a Mercedes tech seminar. They were showing us some sort of tracking device that would compute the trajectories of pedestrians, and decide if they were in danger of being hit. It was pretty neat stuff and I asked what kind of super computer it used to make it work.

He handed me his generic-looking PDA.

It’s more dependent on the efficiency of the programming than the processor itself.

Using its cheap little built-in camera I watched the phone screen track everyone in the room. No matter how fast they moved the system kept up, even as a waiter dumped a tray of glasses. It plotted their trajectory right to the floor (didn’t really need a computer for that one).

In any case, it was some awesome code. I’m sure it’ll find its way into Mercedes products soon.

Almost every modern car has some sort of computer-assisted driver aid be it ESP, ASR, ABS, ASTC, TCS. And while I once bitched about these systems and how they were intrusive, I’ve since done a 180.

It had just started raining, one of the first downpours of California’s mild winter. It wasn’t really a downpour per se, more like a steady mist, just enough to mix with compounds on the street (oil, rubber, dust). The first SoCal rain is always the worst, a combination of slippery road grime, deteriorated wipers and drivers unwilling to slow down. In fact, I’m pretty certain rain makes our drivers increase their speed. Maybe they think their car will get less wet or something.

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I had merged onto the freeway at 65 mph, a speed I thought was appropriate for the circumstances. Fellow drivers felt differently. I had cars flying by on both sides, at least 25 mph faster. I have a simple rule: I never drive faster than I can see. I guess these folks could see faster.

I saw a flash of brake lights punctuated by screeching rubber. Judging by the swaying brake lights, a couple of SUVs were about to collide. A few people simply hit the throttle in an attempt to get around the ensuing mess and a few (me included) moved to the far right. If I hadn’t known better, I’d swear I was watching a drift competitionwhy they hadn’t slammed into each other was part of the show.

In truth, I was watching the cars’ electronic traction aids come to the rescue. Each vehicle was applying brakes and throttle in an attempt to straighten itself. It was all over in a few seconds and traffic resumed its normal insane pace.

Yes, the traction control systems on these cars were intrusive but I doubt the drivers cared. Several lines of code connected to a few sensors saved them. Not a bad tradeoff.

Still, there are drivers who insist on disabling electronic driver aids. Like the guy who borrowed our long-term 911 Carrera. As he left for a quick testdrive he wanted to know how to switch off the traction control. I pretended not hear it and walked away. Forty-five minutes later we got a call.

Um, better send a flatbed. I, uh, had an incident.

We found him a few miles away. The car looked fine despite the fact all four wheels were floating 3 inches above the ground. He’d managed to jump the center median, leaving the Porsche on a concrete pedestal.

I didn’t say anything. He was a stand-up guy and knew he’d be paying for it.

With his head buried in between his arms he said, Oh yeah. I found the traction control system. That was an expensive button to push.

By Les Bidrawn
242 Articles



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