It was a lovely sunny day and I was driving northbound on Griffith Park Boulevard in my new 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6. As was my habit, I was looking at For Sale signs on some of those cute homes on the east side of the street. Those were days when you could buy one of those homes for less than $200,000.
What I didn’t notice was the gigantic moving truck parked directly in front of me in the traffic lane. My distraction turned to panic when I looked back to the street. There was opposing traffic and I had nowhere to go. I instinctively slammed the brakes, both feet, as hard as I could. While my life was flashing through my head, I heard a strange staccato stuttering sound, the brakes pulsed and the car stopped just a couple feet short of the menacing T-bar.
In almost any other car, I wouldn’t have stopped in time and I would have been seriously injured or worse.
In those days, anti-lock brakes were the domain of German luxury cars. Lexus and Infiniti didn’t exist yet and the Detroit Three were floundering in mediocrity.
I was aware that my car had the feature, but in the fraction of a second I had to react, it didn’t cross my mind. I’m thankful the Mercedes had anti-lock brakes. The new era of electronic driving assistants became very real and tangible to me in that instant.
Two other factors favored me that day. In addition to the ABS system, the car had nearly new tires with lots of tread (translate: grip) and the road was clean and dry. Most people ignore their tires and this can be a fatal mistake. Worn tires and ones that are either under- or over-inflated tires, rob your vehicle of its best stopping power and accident avoidance agility.
Fast forward more than 20 years and virtually every car sold has ABS. Electronic stability control is also now mandated on most new vehicles. But what’s really changed is that your car has become a sophisticated mash up of high-strength steel, greasy bits, plastic and high-speed computers that control almost every aspect of driving.
Computer programs can instantly change the way the steering and throttle respond to driver input. Computers control the valve timing and fuel injection systems. They can deactivate cylinders and new stop-start technology automatically kills and revives the internal combustion when it’s not needed. Sensors monitor and adjust anything from the climate to the ambient lighting.
The most significant advances have been made in expensive electronic and mechanical vehicle safety. Electronic nannies do amazing things to keep you safe. Air bags at every corner of a vehicle protect you in a crash and are even being placed in seat belts. High strength, lightweight alloys guard the passengers.
This year, Toyota made the headlines with wild tales of runaway vehicles with sticky throttles and bunched up floor mats. Toyota is now a defendant in hundreds of cases of lawsuits related to unintended acceleration; yet so far, neither government investigators, nor Toyota, nor independent scientists have been able to find a software defect in Toyota’s electronic throttles. Much of the “black box” data shows that many of the crashes were a result of driver error. People do confuse the pedals when they are panicked.
To mitigate the damage to its reputation and falling market share, Toyota has replaced millions of throttles and reprogrammed the software to automatically cut off the fuel supply when it detects both accelerator and brake pedals pressed simultaneously.
Last month, I was invited to a Lexus safety demonstration event at the Toyota Motor Speedway in glamorous Irwindale. I arrived an hour early, and to my delight, they were all set up and ready to go so I was offered unhurried drives on the various courses demonstrating a host of electronic nannies on 2011 Lexus (and Toyota) vehicles.
Lexus Safety Event Registration
Lexus calls its unintended acceleration mitigation system “Smart Stop Technology” and it’s standard on all 2011 Lexus vehicles. Lexus needs to reassure its customers that the electronic drive-by-wire throttle systems are safe and that they won’t die in a fiery crash like the one that happened in a 2009 Lexus ES350 in northern San Diego County on August 28, 2009. (more…)