PETER HAYES LOOKS AT THE VARIOUS TECHNOLOGY AND GADGETS THAT AIM TO MAKE CAR DRIVING BOTH SAFER AND SMOOTHER.
This involves "coming upon an unexpected solid and unmoving object in the road while travelling along at around 60km an hour; and then being able to safely manoeuvre around it in a space of 38 meters or less."
They avoided the "elk", but the car didn't survive the four-quick-turns-in-a-row procedure in its original condition. While nobody was hurt, the incident soon the subject of motoring press headlines.
A short while after a German motoring magazine "Auto, Motor und Sport" managed to photograph the same car with all four wheels off the ground while simply zig-zaging through road cones. The interesting point was that the car was being crashed, not by the driver's action, but by the car's ESP (Electronic Stability Programme) that had selectively applied the four brakes according to its own programmed logic.
In other words, a computer had mistaken expert driving for bad driving, and while trying to correct this perceived fault had actually made things worse!
While Mercedes have since modified the car - at the loss of both face and sales - the lesson was an important one for the whole motoring industry: High technology, wrongly applied, can be even worse than no technology at all!
The vast majority of motoring research is based on obvious aims such as improved road-holding or making the car safer in event of a crash. However companies such as Jaguar are seeing things in a totally different light - quite literally!
Their most adventurous development project involves giving the driver optional infrared vision in order to aid nighttime driving. However, Jaguar's Project Manager, Paul Mulaunny, reports that after two years of hectic development the device is "still not quite market-ready."
One of the problems is that the glass projection screen - not unlike a pulldown sunshield in outward appearance - projects a green image that test drivers report a dislike to. It is also reported that it gives the driver a unique form of "tunnel vision" after prolonged periods in use.
Nevertheless, even in its imperfect state, it allows the driver to see far more of the road ahead than otherwise would be the case. It also works just as well in bad weather conditions such as fog and heavy rain.
Of all today`s currently-in-use motoring technology, ABS (Automated Braking System) is perhaps the most useful: In short summation, it tries to stop the car in as straight a line as possible - even when the car is cornering.
(It goes without saying that entering the wrong lane of traffic greatly increases the chances of either death or injury.)
Car design have many problems that few of us ever stop to consider. The most complex problem is when the two sides of the car are driving on quite different road conditions: Snow and slush on one side and relatively clear road on the other, for example.
Systems like EDS (Electronic Detection System(s)), tries to establish the status-quo between the two sides of the car through a system of constant computer monitoring and traction adjustments.
Other helping hands in controlling the car under such "difficult" conditions include "4X4" (which has many other names and postfixes), which correctly divides engine`s power between the four wheels to try to optimize performance.
ESP, as mentioned above, detects "driver error" and selectively applies the brakes to "bring the car back under the driver's control." This is the technology that, more than anything else, allows drivers to corner at speeds unthinkable just a few years ago.
After ABS, airbags are the next biggest breakthrough in motoring safety. Technology-wise they are almost unique in being a bizarre mix of microchip and shotgun technology!
Upon detecting a collision, of the appropriate magnitude, there is a small gas explosion that inflates the bag(s) and hopefully prevents injury to driver and/or passenger.
Air bags are designed to only obstruct vision for a fraction of a second and are safe to use while wearing glasses, but they are an explosive device and can be a startling in themselves.
They are also designed to be used in the optimal driving conditions: Both hands on the wheel and with the safety belt fastened (some advanced systems even work in tandem). If you are smoking a pipe, talking on a mobile phone or driving with only one hand you may sustain injuries not due to the collision alone.
"Active suspension" is another piece of interesting in-car monitoring technology. As might be easily guessed from the name, this tries to keep the ride as smooth as humanly possible under various road conditions.
"Xenon headlights" give better road illumination and they can also be computer controlled to move as the car turns a corner to optimize the beam of the light.
Given all these computer chips, no one can be 100% sure that this, or any other in-car computer technology, will not be prone to the "Year 2000" bug.
Rather than inventing new devices better car security is often a case of simply applying the technology that already exists. This involves things such as electronic immobilisers, Fire Prevention Systems (FPS) and central door locking.
Looking further ahead, one of the more interesting debates of future-based motor security is whether distant engine-cut-out technology would be acceptable. This would work from Low Earth Orbit Satellite (LEOS) or even use pager technology.
This might operate like this: Your car is stolen so you pick up the phone and call a number a control centre who would tap in your unique codes and a signal would be sent to your engine - wherever it may be - telling it to slowdown and stop!
If the system was smart enough it might even report back its present location.
In-car navigation systems have been talked about for quite a while and are about to be introduced in some up-market models. However, please be careful to differentiate between systems that use satellites to simply establish the car's position, and those that would, in future, pass traffic information from space.
A more down-to-earth device is the (UK) "Trafficmaster Freeway." This is a new black box device that sits on the dashboard of the car and relays, via shortwave radio, information on any problems that may be lying ahead.
Trafficmaster claim a network of 2,400 sensors that gathers information about traffic conditions and then passes it on to the driver. Presently the device is "Motorway only," but will be expanded to A roads in the very near future. Expect to pay around eighty pounds for the device.
One of the special problems of motoring in the USA is drivers, after long periods on straight and unbending freeways, fall asleep at the wheel and then drift off the road.
Some states have now introduced road-humps at the side of the freeway that shake drivers back to consciousness as they are crossed. Surveys suggest they cut road accidents by a half.