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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(July 2009)

I wonder what car I shall be driving next, in a few yearís time, in place of my R-reg Corolla (with its possibly T-reg front wing and passenger door, which now both look rather older than the rest of the car, sadly) ... it could well be a model thatís rolling off the production line currently, no doubt boasting many more distractions ó bells and whistles, buttons and switches, functions and features ó than I have to cope with now.

You can understand why, year by year, new models have become more feature-filled (like computers and software), more glittery, more exotically lit outside and inside, and generally more Ďenviableí: the manufacturers need to attract the purchasers! And thereís no doubt that modern cars are built for safety and also for reliability (unlike computers and software).

And yet ... inevitably they have come to be more computerized(!), more expensive to run, more difficult for the owner to service, and less distinguishable (different models, I mean) from one another. Cars are also tending to become heavier for their size, or so I understand, hence needing more power ó this is of course a vicious circle.

Worse: nowadays they involve you less in the process of driving, isolating you from the road ahead and the traffic around, not least by obstructing your view out. Why, for instance, do door pillars have to be so dangerously wide? And why does an on/off button appear to be taking over from the handbrake lever? I even have a suspicion that some cars are being designed now to suit average-to-poor drivers by keeping them feeling as safe and happy and untaxed as possible. If this is so then isnít it another vicious circle, pushing the standard of driving down?

Though I have no experience myself of the latest safety features, I do worry about the ones that require intelligent control by the (new) owner, who therefore ought first to read and digest the relevant bits of the driverís manual. But I bet about half of motorists never look at this under any circumstances ó not even if all else fails! (Iím the opposite: I shall probably read my next new manual from cover to cover before I leave the house.) Do manufacturers keep in mind all types of owner, including the try-it-and-see sort, when designing a new model and (in particular) its safety systems? Also, what might happen when these systems have been fitted to every car on the road?

Letís consider Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) as an example. I believe this lets you punch in first a cruising speed, as with ordinary CC, and then a minimum following distance (or else a time-gap). If the built-in radar detects that you are catching up with a vehicle, then when you arrive at the set distance from it the ACC system will automatically slow you down to its speed.

But this conjures up a vision (in my rear-view mirror) of some habitual tail-gater who, having first entered the shortest following distance that his ACC will allow, is now sitting back and relaxing behind me! Itís hard to accept that this is better than having him concentrating fully on my progress.

Another disturbing scenario in my imagination is a fast procession on a motorway, with every vehicle equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control which is automatically keeping them all to the speed of the leader. Suppose this vehicle slows down (even if only slightly): the change is detected by the ACC in the car behind, which in a fraction of a second eases off a little more, in order to settle back again to the preset following distance.

The next vehicle will have to slow down even more, for the same reason ... and within seconds, way back, the queue will come to a halt. Weíre familiar with the result of this domino effect already without ACC in every vehicle (though at least at present if the procession contained a few advanced drivers their skill might well succeed in keeping it on the move!). So I await with interest news of how Adaptive Cruise Control actually behaves in such situations.

Let me now report on my experiences at the ĎEnhanced Advancedí event that was run by the Thames Valley Group last month. It consisted of a talk plus a final debrief by Dave Thomas (an IAM examiner) and, in between, a drive for everyone accompanied by an observer. This was only my second such drive since I passed the advanced test seven years ago, so when it was over I was relieved to learn that my standard of driving was almost up to scratch.

Among the things I was advised: I ought to grasp the gear stick more firmly; I could usefully indicate my intentions more often (thatís if thereís a likelihood that someone else will benefit); and when attempting a driving commentary, I should mention not only the hazards ahead but also the actions I have in mind to cope with them.

The advice we were all given by Dave Thomas included how to approach any sort of hazard: Concentrate, Observe and Anticipate (by slowing down early) to give yourself more Space and Time in which to deal with the problem ó these words make up the COAST pattern of driving.

He also told us that when you are reversing, firstly your seat belt need not be fastened and secondly your window ought to be open just in case you hear something behind that you havenít seen (but alas, this did not save me from backing Mrs Sís Micra into the structure of a multi-story car park the other day ... ouch!).

I learned a different lesson just before the Enhanced Advanced day. I thought this would be a good time to take the wheels off the Corolla (as I do, about every 3000 miles) and inspect the tyres and brakes. On the previous occasion I found nothing amiss. This time, although there was still 4 mm of tread both centrally and on the outer edges of the front tyres, no more than 1 mm remained on the inside edges ó and this was after less than 13,000 miles on the road.

OK, itís not so easy to check the inside edges when the wheels are on the car, but I urge you not to ignore them altogether, as I had done. The cause of the extreme wear, I was informed, was badly misaligned tracking (though what exactly upset the adjustment, I have no idea). The cost was a new pair of tyres.

Anyway, the Enhanced Advanced day was well worth attending. I must go again ... perhaps when Iím driving my next car?

Peter Soul

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