Are driver assistance systems encouraging us to pay less attention on the road? Our man James argues that yes, they are.
The concept of autonomous driving is hardly a new one, with General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW among others having previewed their own attempts over the years. In 2010, Audi even sent a driverless TTS up the unforgiving Pikes Peak International Hillclimb. And who could forget Google’s effort…?
Now Renault is taking a shot at it, its new Next Two a vision of what the French brand believes will be readily available autonomous technology by the year 2020. The question is, do we really want it to be?
Let me explain. Research and development into driver-less technology inevitably brings with it advanced safety systems, an initiative designed to further reduce the number of deaths on the road. And who amongst us wouldn’t champion that? In 1965 for instance, it was still legal to drink and drive in the UK, and only in 1983 were occupants obligated to wear seatbelts. Compare that to today, where every car and light goods vehicle leaving the factory must be fitted with driver and passenger side airbags. Understandable, given that a Ford Fiesta ST 1.6 Turbo today hits 100kph from standstill as quickly as a Lamborghini Miura did in the 1960s.
Today, acronyms of various persuasions – from TC to ABS, AWD to EPS – prove as critical as horsepower and torque ratings to the (urgh!) motoring media, as manufacturers continue to replace the pink, squidgy, emotional thing behind the steering wheel with ‘more reliable’ technology in the interests of safety. Admirable and very clever certainly, but for every driver assistance system that appears on a car comes the inevitable ‘safety net’. Suddenly drivers are given the opportunity to relax (briefly) their normal due care and diligence on the road, knowing that technology is working behind the scenes, doing the job for them. Surely this is entirely the opposite of what road safety initiatives trying to promote?
Take our new long term Infiniti Q50 S, for instance. Like so many examples in the motoring world, our mid-sized saloon features adaptive cruise control as standard, a system that automatically reduces the speed of your vehicle when the distance to the car in front drops below a certain limit. On the highway and whilst travelling at upwards of 100kph, the driver of a car with adaptive cruise control – essentially – does not need to pay attention to either the brake or throttle pedal. A concept which, just 20 years ago, would have been terrifying.
In the Q50 S, this principal goes yet further. Newly developed Chassis Control technology incorporates all manner of sensors to automatically make adjustments to the steering wheel should the car begin to wander out of lane, consequently requiring no input from the driver at all. Think about it: today you can legitimately drive a car on the highway, at up to 100kph, whilst paying no attention to the brakes, the accelerator or the steering. Throw in an automatic gearbox, and driver assistance technology – incredibly – has essentially given drivers carte blanche to pay absolutely no attention to the road, their fellow motorists, or any of their surroundings. Is this not traditionally how accidents occur?
I’m certainly not trying to argue that today’s road cars are ‘too safe’ (only a fool would do so), nor am I ridiculing autonomous technology, given the potential independence a driver-less car provides for the elderly and disabled alike. I argue only that today, with this spectacularly brilliant technology at our disposal, we are allowing ourselves the bliss of ignorance on the road. Why focus on the road ahead when the car can do it for me? Why worry about veering out of lane when the car can concentrate for me? Why drive when the car can do (most) of it for me?
It’s a concerning grey area, and until such a time when autonomous driving has taken hold, it’s seemingly here to stay.