Rise of the Machines: Who’s Driving Whom

Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) — Warning: You may soon find that your car is taking over for you.

Lately I’ve been testing more and more automobiles that seem at times determined to outsmart me and in some cases partially drive themselves. Many of these autonomous features are safety-minded, though some are a bit silly or simply wrongheaded.

Then there’s the car that watches you while you drive it. Creepy.

From Lexus and Mercedes to Infiniti, many new models boast multiple cameras and radar sensors. One can alert you to other cars in your blind spots, another will shake you awake when you’re distracted and one even hits the brakes if it thinks you’re headed for a crash. [Read on Bloomberg News]

The least-intrusive and most-helpful of these are blind- spot monitors. Since my first experience with the clever technology, on an Audi Q7, I’ve found similar systems on cars from Ford, Jaguar, Mazda and Land Rover.

If another car is lurking in your blind spot or approaching alongside at speed, when you put your blinker on, a warning light embedded in the side-view mirror will flash (and sometimes set off a beep or gong).

Rear Window

This is especially helpful in vehicles with sloping roofs or thick “C” pillars that obscure rear views, thus allowing you to keep your peepers on the road.

The 2011 Infiniti M sedan will actually steer you back into your lane if it detects movement into the path of another car. Whether you want that level of electronic intervention is your business. Call me a control freak, but I prefer to keep my fate in my own hands.

Unfortunately, many of the new gizmos are needed not because of design faults, but because of deficiencies in ourselves. We bring our multi-tasking lives inside our cars, and car makers must find ways to make up for all the texting, eating, makeup-applying and radio fiddling.

Not to go all dad-like on you, but we wouldn’t need these pricey options if we had better driver education in the U.S. or, you know, just paid more attention. One of the fundamental glories of driving is the act of taking control of a 4,000-pound piece of machinery and the attendant responsibility that comes with it.

Laser Alert

Instead we get the Volvo XC60’s “City Safety” system, which at speeds under 20 mph will actually stop the car completely when an optical laser senses an impending bang-up. So feel free to text in rush-hour traffic with impunity.

Better, perhaps, is the Mercedes-Benz “pre-safe brake system” found on the new E-Class. It first sounds a warning if you’re approaching another car too quickly. If you fail to respond (“Where’s that hard-rock station anyhow?”), it will begin to slow the car and pre-load the brakes — at that point even a half-hearted application of the pedal will engage the brakes fully. Many drivers don’t use the 100 percent potential of their brakes even in accident situations, and Mercedes’s system makes up for that.

Lane-departure warning systems are also more common. Some are subtle and welcome, such as the one in the E-Class in which the steering wheel lightly tremors in your hand if you stray over a lane without using a turn signal. Others, such as Infiniti’s lane prevention system, actually brake an outside wheel to actively pull you back into the lane.

Just Stop It

The latter system drives me crazy, especially in congested cities like New York, where the dotted line is more a suggestion than an imperative. (Blind-spot sensors also tend to go crazy in clusters of cabs.)

Ever feel like you’re being watched? You’re neither paranoid nor delusional if you’re inside several Lexus models, including the new HS 250h sedan. It’s got an infrared camera on the steering column that reads your face, constantly checking to see if you’re looking forward. If you aren’t and other sensors detect a possible collision, a warning chimes.

Like the Mercedes, the monitor is linked to a system that will prepare the brakes for 100-percent effectiveness.

Or how about sensors worthy of the Cold War? BMW 7 Series has available Night Vision. The GPS navigation screen doubles as a monitor that shows the world as ghostly images of black and white and glowing heat signatures from cars, humans and animals. It’ll even warn if a pedestrian is headed into your path. Neat, though also in keeping with BMW’s tendency toward technological overkill.

Lastly, there are the cars that really do drive themselves. Or park themselves, anyhow. Lexus offers an Advanced Parking Guidance System which I tested in the LS 460 L luxury sedan. It required a really large space and was nearly as complicated as learning to parallel park in the first place.

Ford has jumped into the fray with its own system, found on several new Lincoln models and the Ford Flex.

Certainly much of this technology is crafty, and some of it may even make the roads safer. Still, I find some of it vaguely unsettling. You did see “I, Robot,” right?

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.

Last Updated: December 17, 2009 00:00 EST