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Smarter cars make for lazy drivers


I HAD an epiphany a few weeks ago as I was watching a new Mercedes-Benz E-Class almost mow a man down.

This sudden realisation came to me as a result of a demonstration that didn’t work as well as Mercedes had hoped it would.

You see, the new E-Class has a pedestrian-detection system that brakes the car when the driver fails to do so. To demonstrate the system to the motoring media, a chap from Mercedes powered up the adaptive cruise control and got in the back seat, confident in the knowledge that the car would come to a complete halt as soon as it picked up the unsuspecting pedestrian crossing the airfield where the demonstration took place.

It didn’t work so well the first time, but the second and third demonstrations proved that the new E-Class did indeed have the skills to prevent the untimely death of a jaywalking idiot. I was deeply impressed by this feat, even though it failed the first time around. After all, two out of three isn’t all that bad. A car without a similar system would have trimmed the man down three out of the three times.

This made me wonder why such a system is needed in the first place. If you’re driving along a road where there’s a possibility that someone might walk in front of you, shouldn’t your eyes be on the road ahead at all times? Are we getting to a point where the car is taking over the duties of a driver and if so, are these systems making us lazy and actually more dangerous drivers? I wonder if we’re getting to a point where safety systems are starting to become counterproductive.

I find myself relying more and more on gadgetry than my own five senses when I analyse my daily commute to the office. The first part of this journey is reversing out of the garage and for this I tend to focus solely on the reverse camera and parking sensors. Craning your neck to see out of the rear window is so 1995.

Once I hit the public road I quickly set the speed limiter to 70km/h, because you never know when an angry policeman might jump out from behind a bush. I could just look at the speedometer, but why would I when I can just trust the car to reign me in.
Overtaking is also a breeze. There’s no need to look backwards to see if there’s a car in the space you hope to occupy in the next few seconds. I leave all of that to the sensors, which quickly indicate via a light near the side mirror if it’s safe to do so.
If it starts to rain on the way to work, the car switches the wipers and lights on for me. All I have to do is sit back and point it where I want it to go and if recent reports I’ve read are anything to go by, even that responsibility will soon lie with the car.

To be honest, I started noticing a similar trend a few years ago when satellite navigation became all the rage. People don’t use their internal navigational instinct anymore. We put the address in the system and rely on the voice of some strict hostel warden to get us there. That’s why I still haven’t forked over my hard-earned money to buy a GPS. It feels as if something essential and somewhat romantic has gone missing from a journey when you leave it to the satellites to sort you out. I mostly rely on Google Maps to point me in a general direction and then figure the rest out for myself. It’s fun and I’ve discovered a few interesting things on my way to various destinations.

It took a drive in the new Fiat Panda to show me what a lazy driver I’d become. It’s as basic as cars come these days and a stark contrast to the recent spate of luxury cars I’ve been driving. It has all the necessary safety features like ABS and airbags, but the rest is pretty much up to the driver. The responsibility of not driving over an unsuspecting pedestrian lies solely with the person behind the wheel.

So, are all these modern safety systems complete rubbish? No, not in the least, for one very good reason: anything that’s designed to save a human life is worth having. I have nothing but respect for companies like Ford, Mercedes, Volvo, Subaru and BMW, who seem to be at the forefront of safety technology.

But my initial question still remains: are they turning us into lazy drivers? After my own experiences this month, my answer is yes, but we can’t really blame these systems for our human weaknesses. Once you get behind the wheel of a car, you’re responsible for your own safety and for ensuring that your driving isn’t hazardous to those around you. It really is as simple as that.

I therefore want the vehicle manufacturers of the world to keep on developing smart safety technologies like those found on the new E-Class, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest a system that warns the driver when he isn’t paying attention. I know these systems exist, but for the most part they tend to rely on discreet symbols which don’t mean much to a bored and distracted driver.

I think we need something ruder and more intrusive than that - a system that yells something demeaning when your eyes wander: “Hey jerk face, keep your eyes on the road!”

I feel it could go even ruder than that, but we shan’t dwindle on the impolite euphemisms for the above sentence. I leave it to you to make up your own audible warning.

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