Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New tech: Keep learning the skills

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While it may have made an unwieldy headline, product-liability lawyers and tow-truck drivers are likely to be excellent career choices for the reasonable future. Allow me to explain.

Based on what we see in advanced-driving and racing schools, actual driver skill, on average, has been on a steady decline. This mirrors the advent of increasingly complex electronic driver-assistance systems. Cars and trucks have also become much better, which actually has a bit of a downside. Less-sophisticated vehicles, with lower levels of sound deadening, do a better job of signalling things like changes in road surface and traction, to which a skilled driver can respond.

Our road-safety experts have little interest in skills, but love trick electronics and legislation. Unfortunately, this means drivers are not being educated about what these potentially helpful driver aids can do. This is why every responsible advanced-driving school ends up having to teach people about the uses and limitations of anti-lock brakes, and this is relatively simple technology that has been around for a couple of decades.

The other side of learning how a system like stability control or traction management works is that it's useful for drivers to have a clue what it means when the electronics fail. This is not helped by advertisers. I really like Acura's Super Handling All Wheel Drive system, but a current TV ad could lead drivers astray.

First, the fellow pictured in the segment is spending too much time looking away from the road. Second, he talks about powering through a corner. No skilled driver does this. You squeeze in power when the exit looks okay. You can power through a corner if you are far enough below the vehicle's traction limit, and it may even feel kind of sporty, but it's bad driving and it develops sloppy habits. If you're close to using up the available grip, powering through a corner just means you're going to crash at higher speed.

Self-parking cars are all the rage these days, and might be useful for someone with limited mobility. For the rest of us, though, every time we park we are learning something about the width and length of our vehicle, and that is no bad thing.

This brings us to liability issues, and tow-truck drivers. At some point, every one of these electronic driver-assistance items is likely to fail. Drivers who relied exclusively on the technology could be caught out rather badly, and people will be hurt. Who will be responsible -- the driver, the dealer, the manufacturer, or the legislators? That's where the lawyers come in.

Perhaps because there's so much technology in our lives these days, it's easy to forget that we're still very much in the infancy of the computer age. The proof of that can be found in the news almost every day. Supposedly secure networks are hacked, computers crash, security breaches occur at the highest levels. As automobiles age, failure of computer-controlled safety systems becomes more likely, and will not be cheap to fix.

There are some amazing new safety features out there. However, we need to know how and why they are working, as well as their limitations. For example, all the fancy electronics cannot create extra traction; they can just use what is available as efficiently as possible. It's still a good idea for all of us to develop and maintain actual driving skills.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2012 F9

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