October 31, 2010

How Smart Does a Car Need to Be?

For many years, I dreamed of owning a restored Triumph TR3. Its cutaway doors, bug-eye headlights and intoxicating promise of wind-in-your-hair, sun-in-your-face adventure grabbed me as a kid and never let go.

Then I drove one.

A fellow had advertised his 1960 vintage treasure for sale in the Washington Post's weekend auto section, and I could see my dream taking shape. My decades of car lust seemed, at long last, to be nearing fulfillment. Yes, Mick Jagger, I can get satisfaction!

A quick phone call and off I went, all a-tingle, to meet the owner and get my hands on the wire-wheeled wonder. It was a sunny-but-crisp fall day. After the usual prospective-car-buyer intros and pleasantries, he gave me a quick tour of the renovations he'd done to keep his prize in good running shape.

Then he handed me his keys. Vroom-putt-putt-putt, vroom-putt-putt-putt. I steered out of his driveway and out to the nearby two-lane road that parallels the Potomac River and ends up at historic Mount Vernon, George Washington's well-preserved plantation home. The November chill kept me from lowering the TR3's convertible top.

As I trundled along George Washington Memorial Parkway, reality set in. Quickly.

I had virtually no rear visibility. The convertible top's slightly age-yellowed plastic rear window made the car's tiny (and I do mean tiny) rear-view mirror even more useless. The round side mirrors mounted out on the front fenders were similarly good-for-nothing. The side curtains (meant to fill the space between each cutaway door and the convertible top) did little for visibility, either.

The steering seemed a bit loose for a sports car, but the clutch and gear shift worked fine. Which was good, because it turns out that the brakes on a 1960 Triumph were closer in spirit to Fred Flintstone's foot-powered jalopy than to, say, a Mazda Miata. Gearing down would be a necessity.

So, I was pretty much driving blind as a bat, with a clear view only straight out to the front. And the brakes were mainly decorative.

As the wizard admitted to Dorothy about the runaway balloon ride that brought him to Oz: "I was petrified."

Suffice it to say I felt safer and more competent piloting a well-worn Cessna 150 through my first few lessons aloft than I did in that TR3.

I managed to get back, through blessedly-moderate traffic, to the owner's house without wrecking his museum piece. Hat-in-hand, I bid him—and my boyhood dream—an awkward, humbled farewell.

Finding the Right Balance
The take-away lessons from my test drive: Adventure is great. But so are power-assisted disk brakes. And maybe some 21st century airbags—just in case.

While the car aficionado in me cringes when I see some of today's microwave-ovens-on-wheels that appear to be designed more like appliances than fun-mobiles, I likewise cringe as I collect examples of vehicle-into-building crashes.

Ironically, most of these crashes make that old TR3 look safe. In many of the storefront crash examples I've gathered so far, the driver is the problem, not the car.

The driver presses the gas instead of the brake. The driver mindlessly shifts his automatic transmission into 'D' instead of 'R' or 'P'.

A car equipped with a manual transmission would, I believe, be far more difficult to accidentally launch forward into a building. Not only does the driver have to depress a clutch pedal, he also has to think a millisecond or two longer about what gear he wants.

It's hard to look at these accidents and not wish two things: (1) that drivers were smarter and more careful; and (2) that a car could somehow intervene when its inattentive or impaired driver is about to hit someone or something.

The trend toward building more safety and catastrophe-avoidance 'smarts' into a car is reassuring (although I hope safety can coexist with 'fun' and 'soul' in at least some vehicles, for those of us who like that sort of thing).

Certain auto manufacturers are leading the way. Volvo and Honda come to mind. More on Honda another day. For now, check out what Volvo's doing.

Automotive writer Nina Russin tells me that "the Volvo technology can sense other vehicles and pedestrians. They are working on other obstacles including animals and cyclists."

As for whether the company's cars can tell if a building is in its immediate path, however, that will take some checking. I'll touch base with Volvo directly and let you know what they say.

Meanwhile, enjoy Russin's reporting on Volvo's safety steps in these articles:

Image source (via Google Images): http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triumph_TR3_1.JPG

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