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Car Technology Driving Us Mad

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BEN COLLINS THE STIG
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When TVR went bust I admit that I silently punched the air. Every TVR suffers the same hateful handling characteristic. They beguile their owners into taking a corner a fraction too quickly, then try to kill them by spinning off the road. Don't get me wrong, I support the freedom to enjoy a sporting death as much as the next guy, but the TVR is not so much low-tech as no-tech.

More recently car manufacturers have been swinging left faster than a Tory manifesto. Modern cars are turning into communists that won't let us do anything without the intervention of a higher authority, and it's dangerous.

The automotive design trends of the last three decades have promoted perceived safety and efficiency. ABS braking was hailed as a huge technological breakthrough that would prevent accidents. But drivers just used it to tailgate one another and brake later, largely negating the safety improvement.

When you think about driving a car with ten airbags you could be forgiven for thinking that crashing won't sever your face. But you should remember that the fireman who comes to your aid must de-activate all that silicon and gunpowder with the care of a bomb disposal expert before cutting you out.

Having put hundreds of new cars to the test over twenty years, I have learned one valuable lesson about all the technology they carry: not to trust it. In 2000 I helped launch a new sportscar in Cannes and we came back one morning to discover that our mechanic had taken one for a spin, literally. It was stuffed so hard into the catch fencing that only the nose was touching the ground. The ABS on that model didn't like going backwards, and prevented you from slowing down at all as soon as you spun it.

Last week when my wife was engaged in an involuntary emergency stop, thanks to an ABS fault, I was having my own mini accident testing the new Infiniti M35 Hybrid. The M35 is the world's fastest Hybrid and accelerates to 60 miles per hour in just 5.5 seconds. On the downside it handles like the Titanic in a Force 10.

In conventional cars the power steering runs off the engine to make turning the steering wheel easier. Hybrids like the M35 come with the latest techno craze called Electric Power Assisted Steering. EPAS runs off a weak electric motor and according to the sales pitch offers: light responsive steering, damps unwanted tyre vibrations, prevents unplanned lane departures and saves you 1 mpg of fuel..

Armed with this I sped towards the first corner of Poznan circuit in Poland, a track that was built during the communist era after the locals promised the government they would only use it for testing tractors. As soon as I turned the steering wheel I realized I was in trouble. The chassis lurched over, then the ABS brakes kicked in like a show-pony balking at a gate and some counter steering was required. That's when the steering went solid in my hands. The computer had said 'NO' and before I knew it I was off-roading.

That never happens to me, "so I'll show it who's boss," I thought. Two corners later and I was off road again, this time at higher speed. The problem with letting a robot do your steering is that it can't read the situation on the road and as a result it fights you for control just when you don't want it to. I'm mildly horrified that this type of steering system is becoming standard issue.

You might write off my racing driver antics as too isolated and extreme to affect a normal person. It is true that the way we race and test cars is indeed extreme. You could liken it to one long emergency. For the normal driver that life-changing emergency comes when you least expect it, and the outcome depends on your actions being in tune with those of the machine. From where I'm sitting, robo-driving is as helpful as using Siri to chat up birds in a Nightclub.

As for the wisdom of entrusting a robot to keep you in your lane on a highway, I don't buy it. Either the car drives itself completely, or it doesn't. This halfway house where it's ok for drivers to doze off at the wheel and expect the car to pick up the pieces, is bad science. And complacency kills.

What we should be doing is wearing meat-flavoured underwear and driving around with one of those ASBO attack dogs in the passenger seat to keep us on our toes. The Swedes tried something similar in 1967 and it worked. They switched from driving on the left to driving on the right side of the road overnight and guess what.. they had far fewer accidents for a full year after the switch. They were so frightened of crashing that they actually paid attention.

Some computer programmers in Silicon Valley see things differently. They believe the human race is so inept that the only solution is to gift control to a higher power, the power of Google. Google claims their car can drive itself.. except in the Snow because it can't see the road markings, or if it gets lost because it can't download a map, and so on.

Toyota and Audi are committing themselves to taking things further and that, I'm afraid, is a game changer. Over the next 15 years more self driving technology will drip feed into our cars, painfully at times, until one day we will wake up in an automated land governed by Cyberdyne.

It will be a perfect world where nobody gets hurt and nobody has to think. Luddites like myself won't be allowed, or insured, to manually drive an old TVR because it might upset the central Skynet computer as it gently pushes controlled traffic around the map.

Is driving just transport, or is it a physical connection that transforms a journey into an adventure? Are these ancient British roads just tarmac, or a web of flowing ribbon that carries us through the heart of our nation? Unless we pay attention we could lose the privilege of driving on them sooner than later, and "Liberty once lost is lost forever."

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