Move over and let HAL drive

Yesterday I attended a local Lexus Safety Event. I heard about it through a local blogger, and while cars aren’t my thing, I decided that was enough reason to go in itself. I’ve been stuck in my routine for a while now; doing something different would be good for me, personally and creatively. Besides, a free lunch is never a bad thing.

[To get the disclosure out of the way first, I was not paid to be there or to write about it. In exchange for my time  I received a bottle of water, a pear, a hot lunch, and a Lexus baseball cap, and if someone really wants the cap I’ll be happy to pass it on. I’m a fedora kind of guy.]

I wasn’t entirely certain of the purpose of the event when I arrived at Gulfstream Park. If I’d thought about it for a minute and remembered that Lexus is a Toyota brand a bell might have gone off. Toyota’s had its share of PR problems since the well-publicized recalls, so this is a reasonable marketing effort to show off their safety features, both existing and newly introduced. Overall, it was a successful event.

We started with the obligatory sign-in, including proving we have valid driver’s licenses, and then general milling around in the big tent while we had a snack. I truly appreciated the tent, because it initially looked like we might be test-driving these cars in the rain. Fortunately it let up before we got started; unfortunately, the rain boiled off the asphalt quickly, leaving behind a muggy haze to annoy us.

This was followed by a brief presentation by a PR guy talking about the safety features. He was pleasant, and did a good job of covering the basics for those of us who had no intention of opening the press kit we’d been given. The gist of the message was that there are many safety features on their cars, and more have been added, both active — things you choose to do — and passive — computer-operated systems that monitor what you are doing and try to save you from yourself. We would get to drive cars with and without this equipment through three different demonstrations, allowing us to personally see and feel the difference. We were then divided into groups and sent on our way.

It was organized very well. Three stations had been set up, each featuring a different aspect of the safety equipment. (Each was provided with its own tent, providing shade for which my shiny scalp was grateful.)  Each of the stations had two cars: one with the features, one without. Each of us ran the test in each car, so everyone got to experience the safety feature kicking in. Sometimes the results were subtle, while in others it was a bit more dramatic. The crew were friendly and knowledgeable, and also good sports about the occasional gaffe.

My group started with a demonstration of the feature most important to the bean-counters: The “Hey look, if the gas pedal gets stuck when you press the brakes it cuts off the gas flow” demonstration. While it was true, the demo itself was dull. Step on this gas with your right foot, step on the brake with your left foot, listen to the engine slow down as it loses fuel, yawn. Still, if you were worried about your Lexus getting its gas pedal stuck, you can rest easier now.

The second test involved pulling the car onto a large plastic tarp that was covered with soapy water and gunning the engine. The safety electronics noticed that wheels on one side was spinning faster than the other, and compensated accordingly. Following that test we were to accelerate into a dirt-covered stretch and then make a sharp left without touching the brakes, so we could feel the systems kick in to save us from ourselves. I confess: I failed this one. My impulse to take my foot off the gas at the first sign of trouble is too strong. On the other hand I didn’t send a cascade of traffic cones into the air like another driver did.

Our third and final test was of braking, and was the most dramatic. We were to accelerate down a straight path, and on a signal stomp on the brakes while simultaneously cutting all the way to the right to make a turn. In the car without the latest features I could feel the front wheels turn as we skidded to a stop, but that right turn never happened. With the computer engaged the car sensed what I was trying to do and adjusted the braking on the left side to turn the car to the right for me. That was pretty impressive.

There were some interesting observations made by the people accompanying us in the cars. For examples, after the braking test the professional took the wheel to show how these systems won’t even allow you to do something simple like doing donuts in the parking lot; the car knows there’s no good reason to do that. (I wonder if it can compensate for the driver being a stupid sixteen year old boy?) Another pointed out that these systems are all developed independently, often by outside contractors, and many are available with other manufacturers’ vehicles, if not in these quantities and combinations. That has to be a nightmare for the people actually assembling the cars. I’ve worked with software long enough to know how tough it is to get modules originating with different teams to interact properly, so adding the additional complexity of systems designed by a variety of outside vendors must bring the process to a whole new level of pain. Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t find that out until we were almost done, or I might have been so worried about lazy programmers that I couldn’t trust these features.

Toyota and Lexus put together a good presentation, and I think this will be a successful campaign for them. More than that, I hope it is. They’ve clearly taken steps to improve the safety of their vehicles, even as a NHTSA preliminary investigation indicated the “stuck accelerator” problem may have been largely human error. Unfortunately, facts are of little consequence in the court of public opinion.

I don’t know exactly how I will personally use the information I picked up today, but I’ve never let practical considerations stop me from learning before. Neither should you.

4 thoughts on “Move over and let HAL drive”

  1. I was dying to go but had a previous engagement – I think I would have been bored to tears – I would have loved to just drive the heck out of the car and THAT would have convinced me if it was the one for me. (I love test driving a car and seeing the sales guy clutch to the seat next to me in fear) heee heee 🙂

  2. Ines, I don’t know if you could have scared these guys. They were ex-race drivers, from what I understand. Now the dealership that OWNED that cars might have been worried. 😉

    But it wasn’t boring. They did a remarkably good job of keeping things moving, and the talk portions were conducted while we were in the cars and driving (or getting ready to drive).

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