Nanny is My Co-pilot

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Someone at BMW decided to put ABS braking on a motorcycle. How better to showcase the capabilities of the then new Automatic Braking System? Luckily, The Boys From Bavaria had just the bike for the job: the K100, or, as it was fondly called by the biking fraternity, 'the flying brick'. One of my mates got one. At a meet, he delighted all assembled by doing full-lock stops on gravel. Wow! Later, after the machine was serviced, he discovered that the ABS hadn't been working.

Don't read that the wrong way. My friend's "all-hands-on-deck" gravel stops were a testimony to his riding ability, rather than the stupidity of ABS. It shows what a rider with real skill can do with a road machine— no matter how basic the technology. UK Petrolheads may diss their American cousins for the foul-handling beasts they call muscle cars, but there is a real skill in driving one of these ancient behemoths over 30 miles per hour. Or around a corner. It ain't pretty, but it IS impressive. In fact, many drivers actually prefer this untainted "man vs. machine" driving experience. Which brings us to the question of the day: how much electronic help does a 'true' enthusiast need?

As you're no doubt aware, no road review of a modern car would be complete without the tester switching off the drivers' aid(s) and seeing what happens at the limit. Casual references to 'a whiff of opposite lock bringing things under control' lead performance-oriented readers to think it's more than OK to switch off the car's central nervous system. It's a badge of honour! REAL men don't need DSC, PSM or ESP! When I drive down the Welsh roads favoured by UK car reviewers, I half expect to encounter a road sign showing the letters ABS in a red circle with a line crossed through it.

This is dangerous machismo. Today's driver's aids are an absolute godsend for the non-professional. They should never be switched off outside of a racetrack. Granted, early versions were passion killers. The previous shape 500 SL was one of the first cars equipped with Mercedes' ESP (Electronic Stability Program). It reacted to a potential spin by completely shutting down the engine room—at the precise moment when you needed more power. Modern driving aids are far less intrusive. The best do nothing more than stop you from killing yourself. So you can do what you love best: push hard. I challenge any amateur to drive a BMW M5 at speed without its Bavarian brain bailing them out of serious trouble.

Of course, there are limits to how much 'assistance' any driver needs, or wants. FIFA's Max Mosley's fascist fantasy of satellite controlled speed limiters is the logical endpoint of one line of thinking. His vision of the Electronic Nanny State would be about as welcome an intrusion into a car as the man himself. But there's still a lot of debate about the utility of more subtle systems. EBA (Emergency Brakes Assist) decides whether you want to stop, REALLY stop or OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! Stop. The computer applies additional braking as and when it thinks you're not putting in enough effort into the job. Understandably, the idea rankles sporting drivers. Then saves their life.

As new ways are invented to get your sports car to do what you want it to do, despite the fact that your desire violates the laws of physics, manufacturers struggle to decide exactly when and how 'emergency' assistance is deployed. It is true that an enthusiast wants to drive on the edge the envelope, while the average punter doesn't know how to send a postcard. That's why Ferrari's system is a lot more tolerant than anything Ford's legal department would allow. Porsche Stability Management is also notable by its absence. Someday soon, fuzzy logic systems will assess your driving ability and road conditions to establish if, when and how you should be helped (and no Max, they shouldn't be programmed to call the police). Meanwhile, we have the on/off switch.

I'm a Darwinian. If people are stupid enough to kill themselves, I'm all for it. So I can't very well argue that such switches should be removed, even though I firmly believe that disenabling them on a public road makes you an automotive kamikaze. But in the interests of maintaining a viable pool of performance car buyers, and second-hand sports cars, I suggest Porsche et al should link their PSM/DSC/ESP buttons to a telephone. The car could call your insurance company when you send the nanny packing. "Do you REALLY want to do that sir?" they'd ask, adjusting your premium accordingly. Err, maybe not. Perhaps the future lies in more variable driver's aids like BMW's new 7-Series, which allows three levels of electronic assistance. Well, it works for dildos doesn't it?

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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