Self-stopping cars

Give me back control – I’ll decide when to brake!

By Shahzad Sheikh

Self-stopping cars Give me back control – I’ll decide when to brake!

Twice in two months now, I’ve had a moment behind the wheel of a car. One of those heart stopping moments when the blood suddenly starts pumping faster, the hairs stand on end, and you shudder with the fight or flight chems coursing through your mightily confused veins.

No, I’m not talking an accident, or even a near-miss. I’m not talking one of those ‘oh shit, I wonder if I can continue to pretend I did that deliberately’ episodes of misjudged bravado. Nor even the quiet prayer of thanks and a promise to give sadaqah when a moronic motorist misses you by millimetres on the way to their own major mishap!

These two moments are distinctly of the 21st century, topical to the threshold on which we stand – you know where we’re staring helplessly into the inevitable abyss of a future where computers do all the driving, whilst we scroll through Facebook and post selfies of ourselves passing places we never stopped at – because we weren’t able to.

Because ‘stopping’ is in the hands of the car itself. In fact whilst I have already railed and ranted about the advent of robotic cars (read here), today I’m not talking about the future, but the present – the right here and now. Twice in two months, a car that I have supposedly been driving myself, has without warning or apparent cause, chosen to apply the brakes all by itself.

Now I won’t bother to mention the make and models of the cars that did this, because this type of ‘driver aid’ and ‘safety feature’ is making its way into most modern luxury motors anyway, and is spreading across the industry – as an illustration of which I will reveal that the two cars hailed from as far apart as Europe and America. So it’s a problem symptomatic of the technology, not the manufacturer.

And this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me, I’ve experienced the same thing a couple of times before, but these two instances were really bizarre – and more than a little terrifying. The first was when I was exiting a mall car park on a tightening corner ramp, marked out by tall poles. In the middle of the manoeuvre the car slammed on the brakes and jerk to a complete halt.

Whilst I barely had time to recover from the part shock, part confusion, a chorus of car horns immediately erupted from behind me as a line of impatient drivers demanded I continue to move. But I literally could not, not until the car itself had released the brakes and returned control to me.

We’re talking split seconds of course, but long enough for me to freak out and wonder if I had hit a pole, or come aground – at worst bent a fender, at the least deeply ground a precious alloy wheel into the kerb – and then contemplate what I was going to tell the police and indeed the PR office!

Of course I had to move off down the ramp, and once I found a safe place to pull over I circled the car twice with a torchlight and a magnifying glass (okay I didn’t really have those items but I wish I had) and found not a scratch or a ding.

So pre-emptive, precautionary braking? Surely a good thing on the part of the self-stopping cars? Well not really, because I never actually altered the angle on the wheel and proceeded exactly on my original trajectory, which of course means there was nothing that I could have hit anyway. The ‘safety system’ went all red-alert for no reason whatsoever.

It could have ended up in an even nastier situation – if for example the car behind was riding my bumper. Which was a genuine fear the second time this sort of thing happened – this time on a fast single carriageway.

As I pulled out to overtake, following another car through, having a clear line of sight and accelerating hard, my car’s so-called computer ‘brain’ decided, I have to assume, that I was in danger of driving into the car in front and yanked on the brakes and flashed the hazards.

There are two things to note here. The first is that this could have caused an accident if yet a third car had accelerated quickly behind me and then suddenly found me braking, or indeed if I had made an ill-advised lunge for a gap with a vehicle coming the other way, only to find myself slowing down and involuntarily playing chicken with gas cylinder truck!

The second thing is that I appeared a complete plonker and an idiot for pointlessly slowing mid-overtake and flashing all my lights – look at me world, I don’t know how to drive! What must the lorry driver have thought of me?

Fortunately nothing too bad came to pass, or I might have been writing this in a hospital bed or through a spiritual medium.

As good as these systems are, and are getting, they’re clearly not quite perfect yet. And far from being a safety feature, could instead endanger the occupants in the car and other road users. And I maintain that even if they don’t do this through an obvious malfunction like those described here, they do this merely by the fact that they are present and some lazy drivers may end up relying on them.

For example even when I’m driving a car with active cruise control that accelerates and brakes itself to maintain its speed in motorway traffic, my right foot is still constantly hovering over the stop pedal just in case – I simply do not fully trust it – but how many other drivers are as cautious?

So my message to the manufacturers is – take your time. Don’t rush these driver aids and ‘automated driving’ tech to the market, we can wait, believe me we can.

And my message to you the motorists is be very weary of these systems. Do not rely on them, do not depend on them and EXPECT, yes absolutely EXPECT, them to go wrong – not if, but when. Just think about how often your computer or smart phone has some kind of a wobble and does weird shit. It’s the same computers in the cars – except here you might not get a chance to simply reboot.

Rely on yourself, not the car.

Note to self – turn off all ‘drivers aids’ and ‘safety gizmos’ on all test cars in future!

Have you had car technology freak out on you? Tell us your experiences below

One response to “Self-stopping cars”

  1. Vinod says:

    Yes .. rightly said !!!

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