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The Downside of Driver Convenience Aids

I’m constantly amazed at how smart cars are becoming.  To put this another way, every year seems to bring a new set of sensors or cameras to make driving easier and/or safer.  Ten years ago, rear parking sensors were the new gadget to improve safety.  And there’s no doubt that this has reduced the risk of driveway tragedies where little kids haven’t realised that Mum or Dad are backing the car out and…  And it’s probably saved a few bent bumpers or so.  Now, of course, rear parking assistance is pretty old hat and nearly every new car has this feature.  Now, there are rear cameras, front parking assistance, sensors to the side, sensors that detect a change in your driving style and either cut out the distractions like the phone and the audio if the car “thinks” that things are getting tricky or else flashes and beeps at you to tell you to wake up if it thinks you’re daydreaming or falling asleep (the latter is found in the new Mercedes E-class models, for example).

There’s no doubt that smart cars make driving safer.  However, there is a downside to them.  We could easily become dependent on them.  Possibly, we could depend on them to the extent that we become less alert drivers or less skilled drivers.  Why should we get into the habit of looking out behind us when we back if there’s a beeping sensor to warn us of approaching obstacles?  Why should we check to the side if the car has a sensor?  This will mean that we stop developing our “situational awareness”.

Situational awareness is one of the most important factors when it comes to safety systems in the air.  Pilots have gadgets that fly the plane for them (autopilot) but even when the autopilot is taking care of things, pilots still have to have good situational awareness and be constantly alter to what’s going on in the air around them.  Yes, flying a plane is trickier than driving a car (even though you can get your private pilot’s licence before you can get your car driver’s licence) and there is a third dimension to deal with.  But the air is considerably less crowded than the roads and pilots have radios and radars to talk to other pilots coming towards them, and can get told about congestion up ahead by the control towers.  Drivers don’t have friendly ACTs (air traffic controllers) keeping a lookout at areas of potential congestion – a sat-nav package or access to an online webcam that shows congestion is probably the best you can get.  Even so, pilots still have to have their situational awareness up to full every time they’re in the cockpit.

And here’s the rub: pilots never learn to fly on planes that have autopilot.  Instead, they learn on basic little things where you have to do it all yourself.  However, people can learn to drive on cars with all the driver convenience gadgets.

Imagine that you’re a teenager learning to drive in the family car, as most of us do.  Earlier, Mum and Dad picked a car that had all the safety features to keep all the kids safe.  You’re going to learn how to drive on something that could have front and rear parking sensors and maybe a camera.  All well and good. You get your licence, and later, you leave home and you decide to pick up a set of wheels of your very own.  The sort of thing you can afford for a first car isn’t going to have all the newest driver aids.  We all know what the typical “student car” is like.  The most you’re likely to have will be power steering, automatic windows and automatic transmission (like the mid-80s BMW 3-series we sold a couple of years back to a polytech student).  If you’re really lucky, it will have cruise control or even steering wheel-mounted audio controls.  But you’re going to have to parallel park and back down driveways all the same… but you’ve never learned how to do this without electronic assistance.

So while all the driver convenience aids are very helpful, I have one real concern.  Are we going to end up with a generation of drivers who don’t know how to drive without sensors all over the place?  Won’t this have us ending up with less skilled drivers on the roads?  Will we get drivers who are so used to getting information about their surroundings from the display screen in the dashboard that they don’t look out the window or use the mirrors?  Because those awareness aids only work when the ignition is on – when you’ve turned the engine off and are about to get out of the car, the car won’t tell you about the approaching cyclist you’re about to knock to Kingdom Come with the door.

My teenage son is months away from being old enough to get his learner’s licence.  I’m going to insist that he does at least some of his learning in the old warhorse of a Nissan that my husband uses for his contractor work, which has power steering and that’s about it, so he knows how to drive something basic and bog-standard – a dumb car rather than smart car, so he ends up a smart driver rather than a dumb one.  I hope other parents will do the same.