Auto industry Cars Driving Research Safety Technology Transportation

When technology is your co-driver

Drivers and technology sometimes just don’t get along. Take this recent JD Power  study: Customer Demand for Safety Technology Threatened by Overbearing Alerts.The news release highlights the results of Power’s 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Survey. That study found that drivers want systems like lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning and blind spot detection (things that will prevent them from driving into a ditch or backing over their kids’ bikes, let’s say) but they want those systems to stop behaving like a “nagging parent.”

“No one wants to be constantly told they aren’t driving correctly,” said JD Power’s Kristin Kolodge, executive director of Driver Interaction & Human Machine Interface Research, in the release.

While those systems can sometimes be a pain, they can also prevent collisions and correct bad driving. We’d probably be better off taking the time to learn what these systems do and how to use them so we can understand what the chirps, dings and vibrations are trying to tell us.

JD Power’s study measured owners’ experience, usage and interaction with 38 driver-centric vehicle technologies at 90 days of ownership. Singling out lane-keeping and centering assist systems, the survey found that 23% of drivers complain the alerts from such systems are annoying or bothersome. But, more tellingly, 61% of those people say they often disable safety systems like lane-keeping assist.

To me, though, disabling the systems can not only put a driver’s safety at risk, it can make them less aware of how they’re driving. No one wants to be nagged but we can all stand to improve our skills. So, if a driver has a tendency to drift to the edges of their lane and their LKAS system alerts them to it, maybe they’ll begin to pay more attention. Then they can correct their own actions before the system has to remind them, yet again.

Driving a new 2020 Acura RDX has made me more aware of in-car tech. Especially after driving a, shall we say, more analog 2011 Ford Escape for eight years. I now have the AcuraWatch suite at my disposal — including Adaptive Cruise Control, lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning and a blind spot information system. Before that, I just had my own eyes and ears to rely on.

And, don’t get me wrong; I’m still relying on those senses (sometimes too much, if you ask my not-yet-a-driver daughter. She thinks I should be using the rearview camera instead of actually turning my head and looking over my shoulder.) But, I’m not ready to abandon the shoulder check. I prefer to maintain a few physical (analog?) skills that can help augment the digital and technological aids that the car provides.

But, I still appreciate a timely beep warning me that I’m approaching a concrete pillar in a parking garage, or a flashing symbol letting me know there’s another car or a bike or a human in my blind spot. I’m working on seeing them less as nags and more as necessities.

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Driving the Subaru BRZ Sport-tech RS

If you spend any time at all fighting urban traffic, just a small dose of a car like the Subaru BRZ can remind you that driving used to be fun, and can be fun again.

This is the Sport-tech RS version of the BRZ, which means it’s a bit sportier and techy-er than just the run-of-the-mill BRZ.
Here’s how it’s described by Subaru:
“An all-new trim introduced for the 2018 model year, the Sport-tech RS builds on the fun-to-drive BRZ by adding Brembo performance brakes at all four corners, as well as SACHS performance dampers and 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels.”
Apart from some interior upgrades like black-on-black leather and Alcantara seats with red stitching and a prominent BRZ logo that rests right between your shoulder blades, the Sport-tech RS is fitted with a six-speed manual transmission — the only transmission available.
The BRZ Sport-tech RS is, of course, equipped with a Boxer engine — this one’s a 2.0L DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder, capable of producing 205 hp at 7,000 RPM.
There’s also an easy-to-use a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility, which is all-new and also available on all 2018 BRZs.
That’s pretty much it. And that’s OK because the BRZ is a no-frills car that is meant to be driven, meant to remind you that driving is supposed to be a fun, engaging experience.  The bolstered racing-style seats are comfortably snug and remind you how important it is to feel you’re in the car, not on it (as you can so easily feel in an SUV.)
The engine makes a pleasing roar when you start it. It doesn’t take much to get the BRZ up to speed and this is a car that loves corners, remaining fully planted but easy to handle. There’s also plenty of power in the low-end RPM range.
On the downside, the touchscreen can be overly sensitive, but that’s a minor quibble. As much as I love the interior design of the car, I don’t love the exterior. To me it could use some more rounded, muscular fenders and the grille and headlights look like they don’t fit with the rest of the exterior design. Plus, the rear visibility is hampered by the beefy C pillars but that’s partially offset by the rearview camera.
This particular Subaru is not about to compete with anything from Porsche or Ferrari, obviously. But, it is a rare small, no-nonsense sporty car that can make you feel like a real driver again.
Auto industry Cars Driving Safety Technology

Driving without drivers

The driverless car began to turn left at an intersection just as two pedestrians stepped off the curb, ignoring the ‘don’t walk’ sign. A warning chirp sounded inside the car and it began to slow, mid-way through its turn.

“Jaywalkers aren’t in scope,” said the engineer in the passenger seat to the engineer in the driver’s seat. “You need to take the wheel.”

The two engineers were part of a Ford Motor Company autonomous vehicle team and the car was a modified Ford Fusion. Taking the wheel immediately brought the car under a driver’s control (although it was never out of control, just creeping through the intersection). I was along for the ride in the back seat with another journalist, getting a sense of how an autonomous car works.

This was a demonstration drive, so jaywalkers and other random acts of traffic spontaneity were not part of the demo. The Fusion was moving on its own, but was not left to drive at random. The maps that live at the heart of its complex software and algorithms and its array of sensors would see to that. As would the two engineers in the front seats.

During a short drive near Ford’s sprawling headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. the car often drove better than a human does. It accelerated smoothly, maintained the speed limit, and stopped at stop signs and red lights. It lingered longer at a crosswalk than an impatient urban driver typically would after a pedestrian (a Ford employee who staged his crossing to show how the car would respond) had crossed the street. But, as one of the engineers told me after our ride, the car will always err on the side of safety, during its development and after. I pressed them on the dilemma of what could happen when the car needs to make a seemingly ethical choice. When it needs to, for example, decide how to best avoid a child who has just darted out – should it save the lives of the car’s occupants or of the child?  They, being true blue Ford employees, dodged the question, saying only that the car would do what was safest.

And to be fair, they, and no one else, really knows the answer to that question or the myriad other questions that surround autonomous cars. Ford sees a future where cars navigate the streets according to downloaded maps and where we might own an autonomous car and a car that we actually drive. Other automakers have different perspectives.

From my driver’s perspective, it’s a strange experience to watch a steering wheel turn without a human’s input, to feel a car move without a human doing anything. But it might be an experience we all will have to get used to.

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My week with the Ford F-150

Ford's 2015 F150 is big and tall but also nimble and comfortable
Ford’s 2015 F-150 is big and tall but also nimble and comfortable

I have to admit: I was pre-disposed to like the Ford F-150.

I’ve long harboured the idea that I am, at heart, a truck guy. Trucks give off this ready-for-anything vibe; an “I Got This” attitude. They display a sturdiness and sense of purpose that you just don’t find in a car.

But, the truth is if I had paid the $77,000 price tag for the top of the line Platinum version of the the F-150 that I drove for a week, I’d probably be worried about scratching the paint if I had to load some garbage or scrap metal in the bed (not that I have any of that lying around. But if I owned a pickup, I might drive around looking for some to haul away. I could earn extra money. And if I spent nearly $80,000 on a pickup truck, I might need to. But I digress.)

The 2015 F-150 is a strikingly handsome machine. Inside, the big seats are comfortable and keep you secure and they’re easy to customize. The view from the driver’s seat is spectacular (as is the view through the twin-panel moonroof) and frankly it’s hard to go back to being at road level in my typical family hauler after spending a week feeling like I’m riding above the traffic.

The 3.5 L EcoBoost V6 engine (with six-speed transmission) runs smoothly and the truck feels handles a vehicle half its size when you accelerate from a stop. It pulls away so effortlessly it feels like you’re driving a performance car (with, you know, running boards.)

Speaking of which, the Platinum version has running boards that drop down when you unlock the truck and fold back up when you climb in and close the door. Very cool.

The truck did have its drawbacks however. Given Toronto drivers’ penchant for leaving mere millimetres between themselves and other parked cars, I rarely tried to parallel park the thing, even with the excellent rear view camera and the Active Park Assist system. And parking garages were another challenge. Even though the F-150 was just short enough to enter a garage in Yorkville, for example, its roof gently touched the bottom of the plastic directional signs that hung from the ceiling. And the antenna brushed the concrete ceiling itself. Of course, I realized this after I cockily entered the garage.  As I watched my insurance deductible flash before my eyes, I decided the best course of action was to exit, gritting my teeth all the way, and park unscathed on the street.

One of the advantages of driving the F-150 is that truck guys give you the nod — that acknowledgement that you’re part of a nearly secret club. I had a few from other Ford drivers and at least one from a Ram driver.

As Ford F-series trucks continue to be the top-selling vehicles in Canada, the club of course is not that exclusive. Still, it’s fun to be a part of it, if only for a week.

Auto industry Cars Reviews Safety Technology

2014 Jeep Wrangler Sport Review

2014 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler Edition
Jeep has further advanced the Wrangler line with the new Willys Wheeler edition. It maintains it’s classic Jeep-ness with some stylish touches that recall the vehicle’s WWII heritage.

In an automotive world of increasingly high-tech cars and SUVs, it’s good to know that the back-to-basics Jeep Wrangler Sport 4×4 still exists.

The 2014 Wrangler Sport comes loaded with some of the high-tech systems drivers have come to expect in current cars and trucks: electronic stability control, traction control, Bluetooth connectivity, tire pressure monitoring system and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

But, that means there are still a quite a few manual controls to remind you that the Jeep hasn’t forgotten its DIY roots. The 6-speed manual transmission is standard (mated to a 3.6 litre V6 engine) as are the manual windows, manual mirrors and fold-away fog lamps. Plus powering the entire thing is a simple key – no proximity-sensing fob that can stay in your pocket as you push a button to start the engine. You use a key to lock and unlock the doors then place the key in the ignition, y’know, just like in the old days. If you’re really bothered by having to open the doors, you can just remove them. Then once the soft-top is lowered (it’s standard equipment, but a premium version is a $350 option) you’ll have an authentic Jeep driving experience.

Which is what the longtime Jeep enthusiasts are after, according to parent company, Chrysler–just a few frills, but nothing that will prevent them from enjoying the feeling of the open road.

Classic interior style appeals to Jeep purists
Classic interior style appeals to Jeep purists

On the open road the Wrangler Sport performs well. Its relatively short wheelbase and offroad-ready suspension means you’ll feel a few more bumps in the road than you would in a typical car, but you should expect that in a Jeep. The V6 is powerful if a bit loud, but not that thirsty – my week’s drive on a combination of city streets and highways netted fuel economy of 12 litres/100 km. Not bad for a vehicle with the aerodynamic qualities of a brick. On the highway, the Jeep feels solid and centred. Driver and passenger seats are comfortable and allow for a good view of the road, but the rear seats are a bit cramped. The dash and console layout are straightforward but all controls are easy to find and use. The six-speaker audio system was a particularly great feature. Two of the speakers are located in the crossbar above the driver and passenger seats, respectively, allowing for quality sound even when the top is down.

It’s a small perk but it shows that Jeep knows what its owners will place a premium on.

The soft-top means that exterior road noise is more pronounced than on a typical car but it wasn’t as noisy as I expected. The multi-step process to lower the soft top and remove and store the rear side windows was a bit confusing at first, but gets easy after the first attempt.

All this for just under $30,000 (the review model I drove was priced at $29,970, before taxes). Less than many SUVs and performance cars and a relatively small price to pay for the ultimate summer vehicle.

Originally published on Aug. 27, 2014




Auto industry Cars Driving Reviews Safety Technology

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee review

My review of the 2014 Grand Cherokee, from the spring 2014 issue of CAA Magazine. This was one of my favourite cars of the bunch I’ve driven over the last few months. It’s a big machine that doesn’t feel big from the behind the wheel. As well, my daughter and wife (also known as the usual passengers) loved the heated seats, entertainment system and panoramic sunroof.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Review

Cars Driving Fuel efficiency Technology

Toronto Star story on fuel-efficient driving

A piece I wrote for the Star’s Wheels section in my role as CAA Magazine editor. It was published on the web Feb. 24 and in print Feb. 25, 2012


If you’re like most drivers, you’re probably wondering how to reconcile your love of the open road with your concern for the environment.

Thanks to a combination of automotive innovation, good driving habits and some old-fashioned common sense, you can enjoy the drive and worry less about its effect on the world around you.

And while you might be in the market for a hybrid Toyota Prius or a fully electric car, like the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt, know that you can still get some positive environmental mileage out of the ordinary internal-combustion machine parked in your driveway.

One of the best things you can do for any car is maintain it. Yep, it’s as simple as following your owner’s manual, checking fluid levels once a month, changing the oil at the required intervals and overall making sure everything is running as it should be — or taking it to an auto service technician when you think it isn’t.

“A poorly maintained vehicle may consume more fuel,” says Stephen Akehurst, chief, ecoENERGY Efficiency for Vehicles Program at NRCan (Natural Resources Canada).

“Poor maintenance adversely affects performance, produces higher levels of emissions and often leads to expensive repairs and low resale value.”

According to research from Desrosiers Automotive Consultants, the average age of vehicles on Canadian roads is increasing, so it only makes sense to make sure all the money we’re putting into them has some benefit for us as well as the environment.

While you’re at it, don’t neglect tires. Under-inflated tires increase rolling resistance and will negatively affect fuel efficiency. They’ll also wear faster.

“Tire pressure is a big one,” says Teresa Di Felice, director of government and community relations at CAA South Central Ontario. “That, and proper maintenance, is really important.”

Before you head out on the road, take a look at what’s inside your car, van or SUV. In addition to the important things like kids, dog, hockey equipment or groceries, you might find that a lot of extra, unnecessary stuff has accumulated inside your vehicle.

Or, you might be driving around with an empty bike or roof rack.

Remove any excess items and only install racks when you need them. The more weight you’re driving around with, the more fuel your car’s engine is going to burn.

When you do get behind the wheel, don’t just hit the gas and go — no jackrabbit starts followed by hard braking.

“The harder you accelerate, the more fuel you use,” says NRCan’s Akehurst. “In the city, where about half of the fuel you consume is used to accelerate your vehicle, you can save as much as 15 per cent by pressing the pedal gently. Imagine an open cup of coffee on your dashboard: don’t spill it!”

But don’t idle, either. Thirty seconds is about all your car needs before the engine and fuel is warmed up enough for you to get moving. And, except when you’re stuck in traffic, don’t let your car idle for extended periods. If you’re going to be stopped for more than 60 seconds, shut off the engine.

Once you get onto the highway, it’s best to maintain a constant speed of about 90 km/h. “We always say watch your speed, not just because it’s the law,” says Di Felice. “The prime highway speed is about 90 km/h; once you get above that, you’re really increasing your fuel consumption.”

On the highway, cruise control helps too, as it keeps your vehicle at a constant speed. Just remember to be aware that cruising at 70 km/h while cars around are moving at 90 km/h is unsafe.

Along with arming yourself with some DIY tips on eco-driving, it helps to use some forethought and plan your driving trips in advance, especially if you have several errands to run.

“Plan your trips accordingly, and consider if any of them are walkable or somewhere you can bicycle to,” advises CAA’s Di Felice.

“By decreasing the number of trips you take, you’re obviously reducing your fuel consumption.”

For more eco-driving tips, visit or

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2012 Nissan Juke Review

The 2012 Nissan Juke crosses several automotive categories

The Nissan Juke is a true crossover. At first glance it looks like a sporty, two-door coupe—until you notice the nearly hidden rear door handles. It also has the deep wheel wells and tall profile of a small, Jeep Wrangler-like SUV. And that’s the point. The Juke crosses over different car categories (compact car, crossover/SUV, sports car) to create an almost entirely new style of vehicle.

The base model SV with front-wheel drive is priced at $19,998. The Juke version I drove was the AWD model, which starts at $26,778. All four trim lines are equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Unlike CVTs on some other cars, the Juke’s is quiet and doesn’t drone at higher speeds. The 1.6-litre, 4-cylinder direct injection gas engine is turbocharged and provides strong acceleration and ample power, even in “Normal” mode. Two other engine modes are available with the push of a button on the centre console, Sport and Eco. In Eco mode, the engine’s power is reduced slightly to maximize fuel economy–perfect for a short daily commute.

The Juke’s exterior design is striking. Four headlights give the impression of two sets of eyes keeping watch on the road. Two of those eyes protrude longitudinally from above the front fenders with two circular lights below. But the design also creates some challenges. The low, sloping roofline that looks great from the outside also makes the back seat feel cramped, as does the way the cabin narrows towards the rear. A child can sit comfortably back there, but an adult would feel cramped on longer rides.

The interior design could use some work too. While the navigation/audio system is easy to learn, its buttons are small and hard to use while wearing gloves. Also, for a car that boasts such a high-tech look and is fitted with an array of toys, why are there no power adjustable seats? It seems odd to use a key fob and a start/stop button; change your driving mode with the push of a button and then resort to using a hand crank to adjust the seat. Speaking of the start/stop button, it’s located in an awkward location behind the windshield wiper stalk, making it hard to access without hunting around for it. Same goes for the switches for the heated seats. They’re located between the front seats in the centre console meaning the driver has to reach down and back to turn them on and off, taking their eyes off the road while doing so.

The rear backup camera (standard on the SL trim levels) is a great feature, even for a small car like the Juke. The cargo area is small, but is nicely concealed by the cargo cover and tinted windows.

Overall, if you’re looking for a family hauler, this isn’t the car for you. But if you’re looking for a small car that’s sporty enough to feel like a sports car with available AWD and the tall stance of a crossover, look closely into the four eyes of the Juke.

(This review was originally published on 01/27/12)

Auto racing Formula 1 Indy Racing Safety Technology

Globe Drive story on racetrack designers

From Indianapolis to Daytona to Monaco, famous racetracks can take on a life and mystique of their own. How they’re designed and built can be as complicated and circuitous as the twists and turns that they make race cars endure.

Some tracks, like the Indy course at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, aren’t so much designed as simply laid out and constructed.

From Indianapolis to Daytona to Monaco, famous racetracks can take on a life and mystique of their own. How they’re designed and built can be as complicated and circuitous as the twists and turns that they make race cars endure.

Some tracks, like the Indy course at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, aren’t so much designed as simply laid out and constructed.

As vice-president and general manager of the Honda Indy Toronto, Charlie Johnstone is also the de facto track designer – he didn’t map out the track, but it’s up to him to maintain its design and update it as necessary, working closely with officials from ASN FIA Canada, the Canadian representatives of the FIA (International Automobile Federation), motorsport’s international governing body.

The first Indy-style race took place in Toronto in 1986, making this year the 25th anniversary of the race (there was no race in 2008). The 11-turn, 2.824-km (1.76-mile) track makes use of both Canadian National Exhibition grounds and city streets.

Street circuits present a unique challenge to racetrack designers in that designers need to figure out the best vantage points that allow fans to see a race, while allowing race cars to safely manoeuvre around existing buildings and other structures.

“On a street circuit, it’s not like we can build new roads, and we have to accommodate the fans,” says Johnstone. “The overriding factor becomes safety; of the drivers and the fans.”

Johnstone believes when an Indy-style racetrack was first discussed for the city in the late 1970s, initial plans called for the Lakeshore straightaway to extend to the western edge of Exhibition Place, well beyond its current location. But, says Johnstone, that would have meant an excessively long straightaway that would be great for drivers testing the red line on their cars, but not so great for fans who would have had to wait too long for the cars to make a return appearance.

An ideal time for a complete lap is between 60 and 90 seconds. (In 1999, Gil de Ferran recorded the fastest pole time registered for the track with a lap of 57.143 seconds.)

“It’s pretty unique to have a back straight like Lakeshore on a street course,” he says, especially compared to notoriously tight street courses like Monaco, which offer drivers too few passing options.

The track’s design is also inspected by FIA officials every year and if there’s wheel-to-wheel contact during a race. “We look at every accident that happens to see if we can make any improvements to the course,” says Johnstone. “The cars are analyzed, as well as the walls and fences, to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

The track will get some new walls and fences in time for this year’s event, partly funded by the federal government. They were redesigned to meet FIA specifications for height, thickness and weight.

“We’re the only sport that builds our stadium and tears it down every year,” says Johnstone.

Roger Peart knows all about motorsport “stadiums” such as the Honda Indy racetrack. Peart is the president of ASN Canada FIA. In addition to his work inspecting racetracks and working around the world for FIA, Peart can also lay claim to designing what became known as Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, in 1977.

At the time, Peart was an engineer by trade and a part-time race driver. Labatt held the sponsorship rights to F1 in Canada and had decided to move the race from Mosport. Peart, who had also become involved in track safety and race officiating, took it upon himself, with Labatt’s support, to design a track on Ile Notre Dame. At the time, the Expo 67 buildings were languishing on the site and some were ready to be condemned; so Peart thought it would be a great spot for a racetrack.

But an island presents its own unique challenges.

“We had a lot of water, but not much land,” he says. “I would have liked to take advantage of the grandstand that faced the (Olympic) rowing area, but that was impossible. So we had to squeeze both directions of the track behind that grandstand.

“We ended up creating the hairpin, which has become a very popular spot.”

The track came together over just a matter of months – the design was approved in May, 1977, and the first F1 race took place in November. It received the perfect opening-day gift when Canadian Formula One star Gilles Villeneuve won the first Grand Prix on Nov. 13, 1977.

Since that time, Peart has remained active in track design and safety and became a member of the FIA Circuits Commission in 1979. All his work on track inspections hinges on safety, the definition of which has evolved from catch-fences to gravel traps to systems using sophisticated computer models.

One such system is in use by FIA. Making use of CAD drawings supplied by tracks around the world, the system can plot the ideal racing line around a particular track, using data from a selection of racing cars, with Formula One cars setting the fastest benchmark.

The system can plot the escape line of a car that has lost control and is leaving the track, mapping how far it will go before coming to a stop. “It will allow you to look at the amount of runoff room, and make modifications (to make that portion of the track safer),” he said.

Like Peart, designer Alan Wilson was a driver first and a track designer second. He also worked at the Brands Hatch circuit in the U.K. in the late 1970s, became involved in track safety, which led to track design and eventually to full-time work as a track designer. The process of seeing a racetrack from concept to design to construction can be long and difficult, yet he still gets about three requests a week to design one, and has designed about 100 in his career, with 31 tracks completed and operating.

Wilson says the requests to design a racetrack usually originate with an enthusiast or business person looking to develop a parcel of land. Often, he adds, they have “strong pre-conceived ideas” of what they want the finished project to look like.

Wilson’s first task is make a general assessment of the business aspects of the project and get a sense of the environmental impact a racetrack would have on the area – it can’t be near wetlands, for example – and he’ll look at overall terrain and identify infrastructure issues such as proximity of access to sewer and water services and ease of access for pedestrians and motorists.

From that point, he’ll try to find the flattest piece of land to situate the paddocks and the main straightaway along with the main entrance.

Tracks are typically built to accommodate a variety of racing machines, from motorcycles to vintage cars, so the main straightaway should be about 2,000 feet in length. Like other designers, Wilson keeps safety a top priority as the design begins to take shape, but he also tries to take into account harder to define elements such as where the sun will hit a driver’s eyes at a certain time of day.

Wilson designs the track with motorcycle racing in mind – cars can race on a motorcycle track because of their width and huge runoff areas. Typically, Wilson says customers will ask for one 150-mph (240-km/h) corner, and he tells then they’ll also need a 2,500-foot straightaway that will allow the cars to build up the speed necessary to take a 150-mph corner. They then also need a large safety zone and a wide radius near the turn, in keeping with FIA guidelines.

Early on in its development, a track will begin to develop its own character as the designers and their teams begin to adapt the track to the natural terrain. Wilson is currently working on a new motorsports complex in New Orleans (which will be part country club, race track and private driving facility). The terrain there is mostly flat, with some of it below sea level, which means the ground is fairly soft and it’s difficult to add weight to it.

At Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa, a track he also designed (based on an old track) and which remains one of his favourites, designers and construction crews had quite a different challenge. They had to work around the rocky terrain – a turn is named Big Rock.

“At Calabogie, it’s an organic track. It’s the only one I didn’t design on a computer,” says Wilson. “The terrain was so different that I actually walked through the woods with a bulldozer behind me pointing out areas to avoid.”

Published in The Globe and Mail’s Globe Drive on June 8, 2011

Cars Safety Technology Transportation

All aboard the ‘road train’

A new European Union research project is giving new meaning to the term tailgating.

The SARTRE project is looking into what it dubs “road trains” or highway “platoons” – essentially groups of cars all heading to a common destination led by a vehicle driven by a professional driver with all the cars in the train linked and controlled by sophisticated navigation systems.

The goals of SARTRE – which stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment – are to improve traffic flow on major highways, reduce fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions.

The three-year project is being led by engineering firm Ricardo U.K. and is partly funded by the European Commission. Several other Europe-based companies are participating, including technology and R&D company Robotiker-Tecnalia Technology Centre of Spain, Volvo Technology Corp. (a business unit of Volvo Group, which makes trucks, buses and construction equipment) and Volvo Car Corp. The core concept was proposed by Ricardo and refined with other project members that are part of the European Automotive Research Partner Association (EARPA) safety task force.

“The goal is to encourage a step change in transport usage through the development and integration of technologies that will lead to road trains being operated on public highways without modification to the road infrastructure,” says Tom Robinson, SARTRE project co-ordinator with Ricardo U.K.

Robinson adds that car makers have long built active safety systems into their cars, such as antilock braking systems and traction control. But some have also developed more passive technology, at least from the driver’s perspective, that allows a car to nearly drive itself (think of the Lexus LS460 sedan that is capable of parallel parking on its own, with minimal input from the driver).

Starting in 2011, SARTRE will begin testing technology that will take over control of a car’s acceleration as well as braking and steering along with what Robinson calls an organizational assistant that will facilitate commands from a lead vehicle. Lead vehicles and those in the train will be tested on closed tracks in Sweden and Britain and possibly later on public highways.

While many of the specifics of road-train usage haven’t been worked out, Robinson presents what could be a typical scenario: drivers leave their homes to take part in their daily commute. Shortly after they enter the highway, they would meet up with six to eight other cars travelling in close formation.

Once the car communicates (through an Internet connection) with the lead vehicle, which is controlled by a full-time, professional driver and a price is agreed to, the driver would let go of the steering wheel and the car would join the train.

The driver could then relax – make phone calls or read a newspaper. To leave the train, the driver simply takes control of the car to make an exit.

“The goal is for drivers to be able to relax, but not fall asleep,” cautions Robinson. “There will always be a requirement for a driver to interact in some way during joining and exit manoeuvres.”

How a driver handles that interaction is still being studied, as is the optimum distance that cars should remain apart while they’re in a road train.

Robinson acknowledges that average drivers might need additional training to cope with road trains – as would the driver in the lead vehicle – but the benefits would be worth it.

He estimates there would be a 10 to 20 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency among vehicles that are in the train because the cars are closer to one another and reducing aerodynamic drag. They’d also be travelling at a constant speed while in the train. Robinson also believes the trains would make highways safer.

“Given that the driver is a major contributor to road fatalities and we are providing the option for drivers to reduce their control, then we could envisage a 10 per cent reduction in fatalities,” he said. “There is less variation in cruising speed and consequently more stability to traffic flow overall.”

Transportation expert Wendell Cox, principal of consulting firm Demographia of Belleville, Ill., has worked on a variety of transportation projects in Canada and the United States. He says the SARTRE project could have merit, but it should first prove that it’s “commercially viable” and that it’s something that drivers will actually want to take part in, and will feel there’s a pressing need for.

“It raises all sorts of issues,” he says. “The first is, Will it do what it says it’s going to do? And what’s the benefit for the (individual) driver? Are fuel savings enough?”

While one of SARTRE’s goals is to reduce fuel consumption among everyday motorists, Cox says fuel prices will have to rise much further than the near $1 a litre that most Canadians are paying to motivate people to use road trains.

“Fuel is really not that expensive and vehicle technology has improved so much that the miles per gallon average is 20 and in a Toyota Prius it’s 50,” adds Cox.

“The real issue is can we solve the problem of the train itself,” he says, adding that a more intriguing idea is that of GPS-controlled highways, or even specific highway lanes, that allow drivers to access them and then give up control of their cars to satellite technology, while remaining behind the wheel. “But we’re about 20 to 30 years away from that.”

“The technology exists (for GPS highways) but we have to surrender control of the car,” he says.

Published in The Globe and Mail’s Globe Drive on March 25, 2010