Did you know that if there’s a German car in your driveway it’s nearly impossible for it to suddenly develop a mind of its own and take off? Yes, BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen (not sure about Porsche) have had software-based “brake override” systems. for many years. Perhaps chastened by Audi’s bout with an acceleration scare in the 1980s, they adopted a fail-safe device very few other carmakers have.
Although it can cost several hundreds of dollars per car, I’m sure they’re glad today they made that investment. The Transportation Department is toying with recommending that all cars have brake overrides, especially now with all of Toyota's sudden acceleration problems.
If you hit the brakes hard with a wide-open throttle in one of these German-made cars, the engine immediately goes to idle. I experienced this firsthand Thursday in a BMW 335i coupe test drive for the NY Times. It was gut-wrenching (I have a weak stomach), but the car stopped with a minimum of fuss in less than 200 feet.
Safety has become a priority for consumers again, after years of surveys showing it fell somewhere below styling as a primary concern. How many people bought Mustangs because they liked the crumple-zone design, or the airbag response time?
Sudden acceleration is throwing the spotlight where it belongs -- on safety. This week I was in New Jersey for a look at the company’s experimental systems, and a ride in one of the world’s most sophisticated video games, a driving simulator built into an actual “S” Class sedan.
The simulator is surrounded by three brightly lit screens that include not only the road but its shoulder. Other traffic (mostly Benzes, but also Audis, Smart cars, and even a Nissan) is constant. The simulator has full hydraulic suspension (driven by an electric motor under the hood), so it effectively mimics the “g” forces you experience making a turn. Here's a look at the video:
I got “behind the wheel” and turned onto the highway, following a red Smart car. It was great fun staying in the lane, and I could even use the mirrors to pass slow-poke traffic. This was the German Autobahn, of course, so if I did less than 80 mph I was being passed left and right.
I tried wandering out of my lane, and that triggered a system -- available now on Benz cars -- that jiggles the wheel to shake you awake. It’s effective. Then I tried getting all jerky in my driving movements, and that triggers a sensor that decides you’re too sleepy to drive: An image of a coffee cup appears, and a gentle suggestion to pull over and take a catnap.
I had great fun with a Volvo in Gothenburg years ago driving into an inflatable dummy of a car. A sensor in the wagon recognized the obstacle and slowed the car down: Even though we still hit the dummy, we hit it at about 30 percent of the speed we’d have done otherwise. Mercedes is working with a similar system, which recognizes objects 200 feet away and slows you down even if your foot is pressing the accelerator. In the simulator, it worked great, but it also tied my stomach in knots. It was exactly like hitting the brakes hard, and I’m notoriously ill-equipped to handle that. I can’t even go on Ferris wheels.
I stepped queasily out of the simultor and went over to take a look at the Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle (ESF), one of just two in the world. ESF may not be pretty, but it is drivable. And if I was in an accident, ESF would be the place to be -- it sports technology that will be in cars in two to five years.
Cutaways in the doors reveal high-strength orange door beams that, believe it or not, are inflatable. In an accident, an airbag-type generator more than doubles their size and strength. “It sounds like science fiction!” says Mercedes in a rare burst of Germanic exuberance.
Underneath the car, amazingly enough, is a “brake airbag” that’s there to slow the car before impact (radar-based “pre-safe” sensors see the accident coming). The bag creates drag and increases friction, also pushing the nose of the car up somewhat to enhance its survival in the accident.
The ESF is actually airbag-happy, since there are side airbags in the seats to push passengers into their optimal sitting position. Another set of bags is in the rear setbelts, designed to reduce the stress caused by the straps in the moments after collision.
The car can even communicate (by itself) with safety personnel -- if it encounters an obstacle in the road or another stranded vehicle. Don’t ask me how it recognizes the derelict car, but the company is working with sizing up objects, including people and animals.
There was more: High-tech LED headlights stayed on high beam, and automatically dimmed when traffic approached. (This was cool on the simulator, too.) And reflective strips on the car made sure it had the visual impact of Lady Gaga in a catsuit.
Finally, I loved the child dummies in the back seat. They were face-challenged, but they had personality anyway (and money, too, since they were in an “S” Class Mercedes). And they were very safe, sitting in novel backless safety seats with high bolsters to keep them positioned and an incredible number of airbags.
Here was ultimate peace of mind with children in the back. There was even a rear camera that “kept an eye on the kids.” According to Mercedes, if a kid yelled “Mom, Vanessa keeps pulling my hair!” the camera would confirm whether this was true or not. I wonder if there’s instant replay.
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