My car is programmed to kill me

Not all automotive developments improve safety...

M5 Taunton pile up in November 2011   (Image: SWNS)

My car is programmed to kill me

People who know me, know I have driven an Audi A6 Avant since the early noughties. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great drive, and my latest Quattro version sticks to the road like it’s on rails, and certainly doesn’t feel like a heavy estate car to drive on winding roads!

However, as we are moving towards autonomous cars there are interim automations to my present car that I automatically switch off for my safety, and those of other road users. I have asked for the default settings to be altered, but apparently they cannot be changed.

Auto-stop

I suspect ALL cars with this function fundamentally work in exactly the same way and is not unique to Audi even if switches etc may differ, but I wonder how many accidents have been caused by this function, and is it really as green as it might seem?

For those who don’t have this function, what happens is that when you stop at a junction or lights, the engine automatically cuts out when the car is stationary with your foot on the brake and restarts when you take your foot off the brake to accelerate. In theory it saves fuel and is therefore supposedly greener, but if you consider that it takes more fuel to restart the car than tick it over for about 20 secs, any stop for less time uses more fuel. It also requires the starter motor to be used multiple times and they wear out more frequently as a result. Is the carbon footprint for making, delivering and fitting a new starter motor greater than the supposed fuel saved? I have my doubts.  The other problem is that there’s a hesitation for the car to pull off whilst the engine is starting, which means you’re slightly behind where you might want to be when pulling out from a junction with busy traffic and a small gap.

My auto-stop didn’t try to kill me by polluting my airways, however!  The following scenario actually occurred, which makes me wonder if/how many people have been killed and posthumously blamed for causing the type of accident that I was lucky to avoid? I suspect it could be quite a few….

I was approaching a fairly large roundabout a bit like the one above, intending to go straight on. I was slowing down in readiness to stop if I needed to. A car approaching the roundabout from my right had right of way onto the roundabout (in the UK) and a clear path onto the roundabout, so I anticipated that I would need to stop, and braked accordingly. The other driver stopped unnecessarily, giving me a gap to pull out onto the roundabout. I quickly moved my foot across from the brake to the accelerator, and my car pulled out onto the roundabout.  Now, just on the roundabout, my car stopped. Auto-start did not kick in because the engine had not just cut out temporarily, but had completely switched off. I had to put my foot back on the brake and restart the engine by pressing the Start button in order to carry on driving. Luckily, nobody hit me, and I got away with what happened unscathed. Had a lorry been coming round the roundabout, and I hadn’t twigged quickly what had happened, and therefore that I had to restart the car, it might have been a very different story…

I went to my Audi garage and described the incident. They checked my car and informed me that there were no faults showing, indicating that everything was functioning as it should. One of the service engineers who hadn’t looked at my car overheard my conversation with the service rep and confirmed that the same thing had happened to him recently.  He then explained what had happened…

As I braked in readiness to stop at the roundabout, my speed had dipped under 4mph which triggered the Auto-stop to kick in and cut out the engine. Because I had removed my foot from the brake, the engine switched off altogether rather than just stopping on pause, but not before I’d managed to gun the engine sufficiently to pull me out onto the roundabout into my then very vulnerable situation. The car didn’t register a fault in how it operated because it is programmed to do this!  Following this occurrence, you won’t be surprised to find that the first thing I do when I start my engine is to switch off Auto-stop mode. The default cannot be reset to “Off” because this function is part of the required set-up to satisfy CO2 emissions regulations.

Auto Lights

Modern cars have an auto lights option that means people forget to manage their lights because they assume the car has already got that covered.  Many modern cars also have daylight running lights, but these are only at the front of the car. They contribute to people thinking their lights are being fully managed when they aren’t, and it gives them a false sense of security.  Auto lights only switch your headlights and rear lights on when the light sensor detects what it

considers to be low light intensity – ie lights are switched on at dusk, and off again after dawn.

Night time is not the only time when lights are required under the Highway Code. Lights should be switched on during rain or other conditions where visibility is reduced although the light may still be bright enough not to engage auto lights. Consequently, I frequently see cars driving in heavy rain or light fog with no rear lights! Grey and silver cars can be very difficult to see at times as they blend in so well with the road and weather. Auto lights are just an excuse for laziness and serve nobody any purpose. They should be scrapped so that people have to manually switch on lights when they are required which will ensure rear lights are more likely to be switched on when they’re supposed to be.

If daylight running lights are considered a safety feature, then just do what Volvo has done for many years thanks to the sensible law in Sweden that dipped headlights should always be on. They switch on automatically when the ignition is switched on. I do this manually every time I drive now. There could always be a switch off option that is only available when the handbrake is engaged for when the ignition may be required whilst a car is stationary, but lights are not. There is no downside to being more visible during the day and no reasonable objection for not passing such a law.

Inappropriate lights

On the other end of the scale, I see people putting fog lights on when they are not required. It is one of my pet hates about driving.  Driving behind a car with lit rear fog lights when visibility is good, is very tiring to the eyes due to their intensity.  It also makes it more difficult to see when the car is braking too, because the brake lights and fog lights are the same brightness. If there is sufficient visibility for you to drive anywhere near to, at, or more than the national speed limit, then you have sufficient visibility ahead to stop within the range of your vision.  It means people behind you can easily see you in time to act accordingly, provided

you’ve got your dipped headlights switched on of course, and you’re not relying on auto lights.

As an example of this, on 4 November 2011, a multiple-vehicle collision occurred on the M5 motorway near Taunton (see blog picture at the top of the page). The crash involved 34 cars and articulated lorries, and resulted in a large fireball. 7 people were killed and 51 were injured.  I had been treating horses in Cornwall that day and was heading home up the M5 at that time. As I passed Taunton there was a bit of mist in the air, but it wasn’t bad and people were able to drive at normal motorway speeds quite safely. However, some people had put their fog lights on when it wasn’t necessary.  The pile up was blamed on the Taunton Rugby Club bonfire because some smoke drifted across the motorway. I must have missed the crash by minutes/seconds as I remember seeing lots of police cars racing south on the opposite carriageway when I was probably around Bridgewater, or slightly above it. I don’t remember seeing any smoke, but I don’t believe it could have been that thick to be the sole cause of the crash. I think it far more likely that somebody braked for whatever reason, but because others had fog lights on, the driver behind mistook the brake lights for fog lights and didn’t brake, causing the crash. I suspect others, similarly, may have mistaken braking lights for fog lights and the disaster became inevitable. Maybe someone driving did something silly, and the crash was going to happen anyway, I don’t know, but I think the light situation can’t have helped, and probably contributed to the pile-up involving many more cars than it otherwise might have done.

I don’t believe for a second that I’m the only person who recognises this danger, but nobody seems interested in doing something about it.  If there was any desire on the regulating authorities and manufacturers to remedy this possibility, there is a very easy solution that could have been brought in years ago I have no doubt.

  1. Limit the ability to switch on rear fog lights to only below 30 miles an hour. If you can drive faster, then visibility cannot be that bad to warrant rear fog lights.
  2. Rear and front fog lights MUST be on different switches. Front fog lights may be useful at other times eg if a headlight bulb goes, and they are seen transiently in oncoming traffic, which is not as blinding as sitting behind intense rear red lights for long stretches of road.
  3. Fog lights must be sited outside the rear light cluster; preferably lower down – at or below bumper height.

These changes could easily be implemented but no manufacturer to my knowledge has implemented all of these, although some do 3..

Auto-lane assist

This feature takes some degree of control of the steering wheel to try to steer the car back between white lines to keep the car in lane if you stray from your lane, eg on a dual carriageway or motorway. The video above demonstrates how it works.  You can feel the car pulling at your hands on the wheel. If you grip tightly and hold your line it won’t succeed, but what if someone hasn’t got the hand strength to grip the steering wheel that tightly, or only realises what’s happening too late?  On dual carriageways/motorways it might arguably prevent an accident, but if you’re that tired or otherwise impaired that you cannot properly steer your car yourself, you shouldn’t be driving. Again, as with the auto lights function, it gives a false sense of security and might even be seen to encourage dangerous behaviours such as texting whilst driving. What really concerns me, is the function kicks in when you cross the white line in the middle of a single carriageway road to overtake another road user, such as a cyclist. It is a gimmick, a precursor to self-driving cars no doubt, but it has no place in current cars IMO.

The video above also highlights a danger with using cruise control that sets the speed according to a car it tracks ahead of you. I have cruise control, but not this system. Clearly, glitches in these automated functions that can create a hazard are not rare. The other issue with cruise control is that in wet conditions, if you hit water and aquaplane, the wheels lose grip and the ability to gauge speed. Cruise control can then interpret this incorrectly and speed up the wheels, so that when you get grip again the car is suddenly fired forward at speed. This could easily cause an accident or make an impending accident worse. Do not use cruise control in wet conditions. Again, this issue could be made impossible if cruise control is not available when windscreen wipers are on. In such conditions your feet should be active on pedals, not resting a distance away.

Keep an eye out for a future blog(s) on electric cars and autonomous cars too… In the meantime drive safely and use your lights appropriately when driving.

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