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Don Paul: Auto safety sensors may not eliminate white knuckle drives

It’s safe to assume the majority of white knuckle drives are related to weather. It can be snow, fog, heavy rain or even light rain.

I drive a sedan which is equipped with a safety sensing package which warns me if I’m drifting out of my lane and can even steer me back into my lane if I ignore the shaking steering wheel.

If I’ve been lackadaisical about steering, a big, bright orange box with “STEERING REQUIRED” shows up right in front of me. Same for coming up too quickly on another car: “BRAKING REQUIRED.”

It has cameras which help guide me to stay in the lane by keeping track of where the lane markers are. It has collision avoidance radar which can also trigger automatic braking if I’m not responding quickly enough to an obstacle in front of me. It has a blind spot camera on the right side of the car. It has a multi-angle rear camera.

Like virtually all newer cars, it has anti-lock braking and stability control. There is a variety of typical auto safety technology that comes standard in many cars these days.

Most of this newer sensing equipment is going to become largely required on all cars in the next few years and many auto manufacturers have made these sensing packages either inexpensive or even standard on a number of vehicles. But do these features essentially do away with white knuckle driving in nasty weather?

Nope, not by a long shot.

Lane departure warning and mitigation works very well if your auto cameras can see the lines on the road. When it’s raining and dark, unless those lines are freshly painted and bright, the cameras just can’t find the lines. Moreover, there is no warning in my vehicle or in most others with this equipment the system isn’t working under these conditions. If you’re counting on that system you may be caught unawares.

People with deteriorating night vision (read: OLD) will often find night driving on wet roads quite the white knuckle experience. And if the roads are snow covered, there are the usual bright white knuckles from trying to determine which lane you’re in and how fast you can travel without steering or skidding off the road.

At least with the forward collision radar warning and braking system, I learned one snowy night coming home from work the radar sensor had become blocked/clogged by slushy snow. A bright warning and an audio warning alerted me the system could not work unless I cleared it off.

Incidentally, I read in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that the radar is not affected by snow. I think the author meant by falling snow, because it most definitely can have its signal essentially eliminated by slushy accumulating snow. Even heavy falling snow can attenuate the strength of the radar signal.

In the late '90s, I had a car with fog lights which were strictly decorative. They were so weak I never found them of any value in fog or snow. They just clicked on and looked pretty. Now, my car has bright LED fog lights. They broaden my field of vision and I find they are useful in lighter fog or snow. But in dense fog or heavy snow, these LEDs are so bright they produce at least half as much reflective glare as high beams. And we all know not to drive with high beams in dense fog or heavy snow, right?

There are some simple common sense things we can do, like clearing the rear camera lens. It can easily become coated with salt or slush, leaving you with a hopelessly blurry, obscured view the next time you have to back up.

Almost needless to say, the same goes with clearing off headlight and tail light lenses. We’re hopefully past that season, so stow that away for next winter.

But before we leave winter entirely, ABS brakes, despite proven improvement in overall braking distances leading to fewer accident impacts, can sometimes increase stopping distance in deep snow or on gravel. That’s because in those circumstances the limited additional friction from locked wheels can afford a little more traction than the lightning-fast pulse braking from ABS brakes. However, since ABS brakes are now working in concert with anti-skid stability systems, the combined capabilities of reduced risk of your tail swinging out in a wild skid with pulsed braking almost certainly outweighs any imagined advantage to disabling ABS or trying to pulse the brakes with your foot.

There is unanimity among safety experts and auto engineers you should not pump your brakes. Stomp on ‘em, maintain the pressure and let the computer do its job. In most circumstances, the computer can conjure up a better coefficient of friction for your tires than your foot can.

Computers don’t have white knuckles, but if they did there are some obstacles still posed by weather to whiten them. This is important as we move toward autonomously driven vehicles.

Google, a leader in this prototype technology, acknowledges its sensors can be blinded as I’ve described above. With Subaru’s new EyeSight technology, two color cameras on either side of the rear view mirror can scan ahead for unexpected obstacles and activate braking if necessary. In testing, Subaru learned these cameras can be blinded by sun glare, fog or snow. So if that happens, the driver receives a warning the EyeSight technology cannot work properly.

But for autonomous vehicles in which the driver will be completely disengaged from the driving process, what happens when the sensors are blinded? Does the Google car just give up and pull off to the side of the road? That is just one of a myriad of problems yet unsolved by Google and others pioneering in this field, as outlined in this MIT article.

I expect years of white knuckles to come, if I’m fortunate. Usually, I still love driving my car. I’m a slightly nervous flier on take offs and landings, despite knowing the probability I’m much safer in a 737 being flown by an elite cockpit crew than in a Buick being driven by the likes of me (so long as there hasn’t been any overbooking).

But trusting sensors and computers to drive me to New Jersey to visit my cousin Eugene? I have my doubts.

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