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.

Bikes Cycling Transportation Travel

Going Dutch: Amsterdam by bike

I travelled to Amsterdam to see the city by bike and then wrote about it for the summer 2014 issue of CAA Magazine. It was my first visit to Amsterdam and I loved it. Now I just have to make the time to go back.

Auto industry Cars Transportation

The cars that drove the culture

This book review appears in the Winter 2012 edition of CAA Magazine

Engines of Change-A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars

Engines of Change (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by Paul Ingrassia is a fascinating look at the intersection of cars and culture. And it’s as much about the ground-breaking cars of the 20th century as it is about the people who championed and built them, like Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich

In 1961 Iacocca, the relentless marketing man, tapped into the fast-growing “youth movement” and found that young Americans were hungry for a small, fast, sporty car. He and Sperlich, an ambitious product planner, led the teams that took the chassis of the dowdy Ford Falcon and gave it a modern sleek body, creating the Mustang. The car personified youthful optimism and ushered in the Pony Car movement and Detroit’s horsepower wars.

Iacocca and Sperlich were both eventually fired from Ford and found their way to Chrysler in the ’70s. As Iacocca fought to save Chrysler from collapse, Sperlich saw potential profits in a new type of family vehicle: the minivan. He bet that the young people who had bought Mustangs in the ’60s now had families and needed a more practical vehicle. Ford had already rejected Sperlich’s idea, but Chrysler had little to lose. And they had a front-wheel-drive platform that begat the dull but successful K-car, which in turn would underpin the Dodge Caravan when it debuted in 1983.

Engines of Change is full of great stories and anecdotes—from Honda’s audacious entry into North America to Jeep’s many near-death experiences. Even the most oil-stained car enthusiast will be entertained for hours.

Paul Ferriss

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