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 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.
Toyota has since entered into a confidential settlement of that case. The case against the dealer, Bob Baker Lexus of El Cajon, is still pending.
Back to the new era of smart safety. The Smart Stop test was the most counter-intuitive driving I’ve ever done.
From a dead stop, I punched the pedal to the floor and then when the instructor said “brake” I had to keep my right foot on the accelerator and stomp on the brake pedal with my left foot. I screwed it up the first time just because my reflexes kicked in and I took my foot off the accelerator too soon. I took the test again and passed without sending the orange cones flying.
It was surreal to apply full force to both pedals at the same time, but as promised, after a fraction of a second, the throttle cut off and the brakes took over and stopped the car. A combination of electronic safety systems takes over in this situation:
- Smart Stop takes over when the throttle is greater than 1/3 open
- The vehicle speed is above 5 mph, and
- The brakes are applied firmly.
The ABS is activated to make sure the wheels don’t lockup in a panic brake. Another system called Brake Assist (BA) senses a panic braking situation and applies the brakes as hard as necessary to stop the car and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) checks for any wheel that is losing traction and redistributes braking force to the appropriate wheels. Further, if the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) sense a rollover, that system works with the Electronic Throttle Control System (ETCS) to further stabilize the vehicle by redistributing braking and throttle to counter the potential capsizing.
All these electronic nannies and others – including seat belt tensioners work in harmony to protect the passengers from harm.
Of course, Toyota isn’t the only manufacturer with a dizzying array of electronic nannies.
Mercedes-Benz has its PRE-SAFE ® system that uses sensors in the brakes and electronic stability controls to anticipate an accident. Reversible electronic tensioners tighten the front seat belts. The front passenger seat is repositioned for a more favorable position in the event of air bag deployment. Both front head restraints move to an “optimum” whiplash position. If server skidding or rollover is sensed, the windows and sunroof close automatically. If you don’t smash your car, the bondage seat belts relax and you go on your merry way.
Mercedes also offers Attention Assist ® that redefines an electronic nanny. The system monitors your personal driving style, detects the driving conditions (day/night), detects the driver’s use of controls, analyzes road conditions, your steering behavior and lane changes based on control signals, steering wheel movements and lateral acceleration. The system emits an audible warning and flashes a coffee cup in the center of the instrument panel.
Volvo has a similar system called Driver Alert that uses a digital camera to monitor the road ahead, along with other data similar to Mercedes Attention Assist. A level indicator even helps you keep an eye on the road. Neither system serves you an espresso.
Volvo’s City Safety ® system uses an infrared laser to determine if you are approaching a vehicle too fast in urban driving. The system applies the brakes to reduce speed and even stops the car (if there is enough distance) before a collision.
Ford’s Blind Spot Information System ® (BLIS) with Cross Traffic Alert uses advanced radar sensors to alert the driver, both visually and audibly, of a car behind you as you back out of a driveway or in your blind spot when you’re changing lanes. An alert noise and indicator light in your side mirrors warn you that another car is in your intended lane. Of course, you have to use your turn signals to activate the system. Who does that?
While the dizzying array of electronic computer-controlled safety systems are enough to send even Marc Zuckerberg into a coma, we live in a much more distracted driving environment and these electronic nannies are more useful than annoying. Get used to them; they may save your life one day.