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God’s Overdrive: How far can vehicle technology go?


John Watts, Head of Commercial Vehicle Services at CAP, writes:

Nearly every week we read in the trade press about the latest passenger and commercial models with new and sometimes baffling technology relating either to safety or fuel economy. Those of us in the now have become accustomed to descriptions such as regenerative braking, eco-roll, pre-safe, brake assist, stability control and adaptive cruise – to name but a few.

While the drive to improve the economy, and thereby emissions, along with the driver, passenger and pedestrian safety is laudable, what does it do to help improve driver skills? It’s similar to using spell check on a computer, which removes the need to be able to spell properly but doesn’t prevent the use of a correctly spelt, incorrectly used word.

Some modern vehicles seem to possess psychic powers – apparently able to sense when an accident is about to happen, they tighten seat belt pre-tensioners in order to help prevent serious occupant injury. We are seeing the introduction of pedestrian airbags and pop-up bonnets on cars. The next-generation Golf will offer a system that after an initial collision will automatically apply further emergency braking to avoid any secondary impact, and one wonders how far electronics can go.

God’s overdrive

Truck technology is moving towards GPS-controlled throttle actions where the vehicle will ‘know’ where the hills are and automatically reduce the throttle openings before a crest in order to allow the truck’s momentum to carry it over the top and then coast downhill until the engine is required to maintain speed. Ironically when learning to drive many of us were told that to ‘coast’ in neutral – often referred to the ‘silent seventh’ or ‘God’s overdrive’ in the trucking world – was in fact illegal according to the Highway Code. Truck manufacturers have obviously found a legal way around that one.

There are also several questions to ask when considering what this technology means for the new and used markets.

First, what is there left for the driver to do? It would appear on first glance that the only item that remains under his complete control is the steering wheel, but current research into road trains might even remove that control for part of some journeys. After all, why use the brake or throttle pedals when adaptive cruise will stop the vehicle if necessary, and clutch pedals were dispensed with on most trucks some years ago. Perhaps this is why driver alertness devices have been invented…

Second, if such an electronic device fails, could this result in a VOSA roadside prohibition order? Also, where will an operator take his vehicle for repair? Probably to the nearest expensive franchised truck dealer which will be the only ones with the necessary diagnostic equipment and knowledge.

Third, what of the future used values? Will prospective trade buyers be wary of vehicles that could be described as electronic ‘Christmas trees’ that might cost several hundred hard-earned pounds to rectify before they can be resold?

Finally, will there be a court case where a driver claims that an on-board ‘accident prevention’ device failed to operate properly, thereby causing a collision?

One has to wonder if the technical boffins have been allowed to let their imaginations run riot, resulting in cars, vans and trucks that become virtually accident-proof and require minimum driver input to safely and economically complete a journey. Where’s the satisfaction in that? However, there is no escaping physics, and when this takes over and a vehicle fitted with multiple electronic safety systems does have an accident, it’s likely to be a big one…

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