The man in the Mercedes-Benz shirt begins his briefing with an exciting video of cars drifting exuberantly through snow. But we will not be doing that today.
“Welcome to a special Mercedes driving event, designed to demonstrate the systems meant to keep you safe,” he says.
The slideshow continues. Attention Assist, Active Brake Assist, Crosswind Assist, Active Lane- Change Assist, Active Emergency Stop Assist, Evasive Steering Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Traffic Sign Assist and, finally, Drive Pilot.
Those are just some of the “assists” that Mercedes has developed in its quest for an autonomous future. They are also there to keep us safe, as pointed out in the pre-event briefing two weekends ago.
At 60 Jalan Penjara, on a big expanse of flat tarmac, the electronic toys we get to play with will not allow us to go hands-free. Instead, we perform a slalom, attempt to spin a Mercedes C180 fitted with nylon rear tyres devoid of grip and swerve round a cone obstacle while braking hard.
Taking centre stage here are familiar technologies such as anti-lock braking system (ABS), and traction and stability controls, otherwise known as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP). They work exactly as advertised. No matter how hammy your fists are, the computers refuse to let you misbehave. If you are about to grumble that that is no fun, remember that neither are hospitals.
In fact, so effective are these systems that you need only an approximate input and the car will compensate for your incompetence. For example, the car will maximise braking pressure in an emergency.
Sometimes, this requires a re-calibration of your driving instincts. In the brake-and-swerve scenario, for example, should you be driving an unassisted car, there is a reflex not to apply the brakes fully and to be delicate with the steering lest you lock the wheels and spin.
With a modern Mercedes, however, you can and you should stomp as hard as possible on the pedal and let the computer shift brake pressure around to keep you pointed in the right direction.
There is, of course, a danger that all these features will breed complacency. But it would be a folly for any ordinary driver to think he can do better than the car’s electronics. Every time the throttle declines a request for power or the brake pedal shudders rudely, it may well be the car saving you from yourself.
At least, until fully autonomous cars populate our roads.
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