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Girl TORQUE: A tech too far?


The idea that one day cars will drive themselves may seem far fetched, but it’s already happening...

Volkswagen’s Tiguan soft-roading SUV will choose a parking spot, twirl the wheel and parallel park – you just need your feet on the pedals.

Other cars will warn you if you’re sleepy, if you’re drifting across a white line, and even slow and speed up to follow the car in front. And I’ve driven a Honda Accord which steers itself. At open road speeds and on gradual bends, it’ll keep you between the white lines, steering as and when required. I took my hands off the wheel, watched it intermittently turn for me and felt a shiver down my spine…

Sounds great? It’s not all good, even when it works well.

In Mercedes’ E-class you can set your speed, set your following distance, then sit back and relax. All you do is steer. With 100kph dialled in, the car will sit on that speed all day – or until the fuel runs out. Unless you catch up to a car in front, when your vehicle will slow to maintain following distance. If the driver in front slows down, so will you. Speeds up, so will you – up to your set speed. On the Wellington motorway, speeds vary from 100kph to stock-still for red lights; the car will slow from 100kph and stop for you – yes, you do then need to hold the brake.

Impressive – and scary. For you are relying on the car in front to do it all right. And you do get bored.

After all, you barely need to pay attention. If you veer off line the wheel vibrates. If you change lane into a car in your blind spot, an alarm will sound. No accelerating, no braking – boredom central. Cruising along like this I actually found myself wondering if I could better use my time. Paint my nails? Read the paper?

My eyes wandered. For quite long periods. And that’s the danger of this stuff, for it’s not completely idiot-proof. Yet when it’s working well, it not only treats you like an idiot – it encourages you to become one.

Ditto with that park-yourself-aid. It’s a clever party trick alright, but it’s only as good as the human behind the wheel – of all the cars around you. For it’ll line up with the vehicles in front and behind alright, but if one of them has mounted the kerb – or graunched a wheel – so will you. The car lines up on them, not the kerb.

Then who’s responsible for the damage? Not the manufacturer, not withstanding the urban legend of the camper van driver who set cruise, stepped out back to make a cup of tea – then sued the camper van company when she crashed.

Now several manufacturers are studying cars which will follow-the-leader, so only the front driver need control their car, while all those behind lock in like some bizarre series of mini train carriages.

Brrrr. Use it or lose it, I say. Get used to the robots doing it all for us, and one day we won’t be able to do it for ourselves.

Read previous Girl TORQUE columns here.

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