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Do You REALLY Understand Your Car?

Traditionally, the predominantly male operators of any form of transport craft confer a female personality to their vehicles. Down at a south coast yachting marina recently, I heard a proud owner boasting to a friend, saying “She’s truly beautiful”.

Pilots, including me, refer to their aircraft as “She”. “She flies nicely”, or “She doesn’t like being thrown about”, “She needs a touch of power when rounding out to land”.

Who could argue that She is beautiful. Supermarine Spitfire showing her elegance. Image courtesy Airwolfhound under CCA SA 2.0

It’s the same with cars, and it’s common to hear people, including women, referring to their cars as “She”. Before I get angry comments from my lady readers – yes, I am aware that many women own male cars, some that I know even name them.

The tradition of referring to a vessel as “She” goes back to ancient times. Nowadays, people may consider that this is somehow sexist, and objectifies women.

I prefer to believe that it’s more fundamental than that. Our early mariners were a superstitious bunch, and believed that the ship in which they sailed would offer protection and guidance, in much the same way that a mother or goddess would.

I refer to my aircraft as a “She”, as in my eyes she is elegant, pleasing to the eye, and demands to be treated with respect.

Today, there appears to be another reason.

Now, be honest. How many of you chaps out there believe that you don’t understand the woman in your life? How many long-suffering ladies out there are stupefied with their blokes’ methods and logic?

I have been happily with SWMBO for over three decades, but there are times when I am truly and utterly baffled by her. I know for sure that she experiences the same sense of bewilderment with my behaviour.

You may be wondering where this is going, but stay with me, dear reader.

If, like me, you own and operate, say, a five-year-old car, it will be fitted with some basic driver assistance systems. My car has rear parking sensors and steerable headlights. That’s it. Nothing fancy. It has standard Cruise Control, and an anti-lock braking system, like the one fitted to my previous 2002 Skoda Octavia.

If you decide to invest in a new car today, be prepared to be a little baffled by its behaviour and systems. (New cars are definitely female!).

In a previous article, I mentioned the Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are fitted to modern vehicles.

It’s likely your new pride and joy will be fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assistance, Blind Spot Monitoring, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Collision Avoidance Systems, Driver Alertness Monitoring, 360º Cameras and Intelligent Parking Aids.

To make the best use of these systems, drivers need to fully understand how they operate.

A few months ago, I decided to evaluate electric cars. I arranged to test drive cars provided by three of the main manufacturers, Kia, Nissan and MG.

Now, bearing in mind that all the vehicles I tested were fitted with some sophisticated systems, you would have thought that a full tutorial or some guidance would be offered by the salesmen before they let me loose on the road in one of their expensive cars.

Not quite.

All the dealers involved were more than happy to show me the boot space, and the clever stowages and storage areas, and gave me a very brief explanation of how to interpret the instruments and how to use the infotainment system, but not one discussed any elements of the ADAS in any real detail at all.

Luckily, I had conducted quite a bit of prior research, so I had a reasonable idea of how to change the level of regenerative braking, and how to use the different driving modes. However, there were many systems that, whilst I knew they were there, I had no idea how to configure them.

I have several friends who have recently purchased new cars, and when picking up their new vehicles, each one received no real training on how to use the systems correctly and effectively.

I have considered this, and it seems that this presents a bigger problem than I initially thought.

After collecting their new car from the dealer, proud owners will drive their new vehicle home, and maybe they will find the time to sit and wade through the Driver’s Handbook or Owner’s Manual. The onus is very much on them to gain understanding of the plethora of safety systems that their car is now loaded with.

More mature drivers, such as myself, will fall back on our “What’s to learn” mentality. We have grown up with cars fitted with few safety systems – maybe embryonic energy absorbing crumple zones, and collapsible steering columns. This is flawed thinking!


We had relatively unsophisticated in-car entertainment – maybe a push button radio, or a radio cassette player if we were driving a more luxurious model. I can remember being delighted with the fact that my first company car was fitted with a proper heated rear window and a fitted rear wash/wipe system.

Our cars were so simple that we just picked up the use of what systems we had as we drove. I think my biggest challenge was remembering on which side of the steering column the indicator control was located. The first few days of driving was always entertaining, with me switching the wipers on before making a turn!

So, for drivers of my generation, it is possible that we have a degree of complacency about the new systems, and maybe we don’t bother to sit down and read the book. (I do, but then I’m a bit geeky, having been a flight technical instructor for the past two decades!).

That may not be a good attitude to have these days.

In my world of professional aviation, we frequently refer to human factors, and even have training sessions on how simply being human affects the way in which a pilot interacts with an aeroplane.

There is a lot of automation on a modern aircraft flight deck. Autopilot, Auto Throttles, Flight Control Computers, Flight Management Computers, Automated Anti-Collision Systems, Ground Proximity Warning Systems, and Electronic Checklists and Diagnostics.

All of these systems must be understood, reacted to correctly, and effectively managed by the flight crew.

Despite high levels of safety-related automation, there are still incidents involving the crew falling asleep in flight, and flying past their destination. We still hear of aircraft being landed at the wrong airfields.

The same human factors will come into play in our increasingly automated cars.

There have been numerous reports of Tesla cars being involved in colliding with emergency vehicles whilst the Autopilot was engaged.

Most definitely human factors incidents, as the drivers simply assumed that the car was infallible, and therefore mentally disengaged and stopped supervising the on-board equipment.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clearly showed that once drivers had engaged the Autopilot (or Adaptive Cruise Control) their focus of attention changed, and they spent much longer looking inside their cars, than paying attention to the road ahead.

Sometimes, drivers disengage to the point of falling asleep!

See this video of a Tesla driver, cruising and snoozing!

As a result, Nissan, at least, has incorporated what it calls an Intelligent Driver Alertness System. This system monitors the driver’s inputs to the steering wheel, and, using algorithms, it can predict the onset of tiredness and inattention. As arousal levels reduce, the chances of an accident increase, so the system suggests taking a break.

Screenshot of the Arousal Monitor. Wish my car would invite me for a coffee…

When I learned to drive, before making any manoeuvre, the mantra was “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. That has become ingrained behaviour, reinforced with 44 years of driving and in the region of 1.1 million miles travelled.

Wow! I have never worked that out before.

As a result, before lane changing, I always throw a quick glance in the door mirror. I have also ridden motorcycles for many years, so I can’t get out of the habit of looking over my shoulder as well.

If all is clear, I change lanes. Lots of people don’t do this and I have had to brake heavily to avoid being sideswiped on several occasions.

Interestingly, the Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) systems being fitted to cars now are really good. You may be lucky enough to drive such a car, and, in many cases, the door mirror contains an indicator that turns amber when another vehicle intrudes into the safety zone, and turn red if a collision would result in the driver changing lanes.

Another piece of research studied the rates of lane-changing accidents across 26 US States. It found that accidents causing an injury were reduced by 23% in vehicles fitted with BSM systems.

If every US vehicle in 2015 had been fitted with BSM, it is estimated that 50,000 accidents and 16,000 injuries could have been avoided!

The other aspect of Blind Spot Monitoring is that used when parking or reversing. Now, I use all three mirrors, even though my car has a rudimentary parking aid that sounds a tone with increasing frequency as I reverse closer to a solid object – including a person, although I have never tried this.

Now, a further study has shown that the drivers of cars fitted with rear view cameras and sensors do not look to the sides of their vehicle before commencing reversing manoeuvres

Surprisingly, the use of rear-view monitoring cameras only reduced accidents involving “reversing into or over something” (maybe a person??) by 17%.

Still, a 17% reduction, is better than no reduction at all.

So, it all boils down to training and gaining an understanding of the equipment fitted to our cars.

I decided to check what the UK Driving Syllabus includes for cars and light vans (Class B Vehicles).

What I found was of interest.

As the document is undated, but is on the government’s assets publishing service site, as at October 2021, I assume it is a current piece of guidance.

I quickly reviewed it, and found two main concerns.

Firstly, it only mentions one Automatic Driver Assistance System, and that is Cruise Control.

Secondly, it focuses totally on driving a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Not a single mention of electric cars.

I do understand that they haven’t been around for very long – I mean, the Nissan Leaf has only been on the road since 2010, and what’s eleven years when you are setting the standards for people to learn to drive?

Sarcasm aside, there must be a need to teach new generations of drivers about the features, advantages and benefits of their vehicle’s on-board safety systems.

Maybe they should also be teaching students about the limitations of both those very same on-board systems, and their limitations as a human being.

You decide…

Go Well.

By The Flying Wordsmith

A highly qualified aviation professional who is able to write cogent and professional articles on a wide variety of subjects. Also interested in general articles covering travel, politics, social commentary and prose. Poetry and Lyrics also an interest.

2 replies on “Do You REALLY Understand Your Car?”

Hi Mark

Well what a wonderful article and I agree with most of what you have said, but have a couple of comments. The electric car was around before the diesel and petrel engine vehicles we have in our blood today. In fact electric vehicle’s have never not been in production. Just remained very basic for 100 years, milk float, street sweepers, dustcarts and the odd tram or bus. Only in the late 70’s did they make a really good challenge to the petrel cars only for the oil companies to kill them off. My other comment is to do with safety systems, the only risk is the other uses of the highway. All must be accounted for and calculated for! By this I mean for the safety systems on all vehicle talking together (sounds like a old 70’s TV program). To give a example, I was driving my wife new Audi A3 and as I came around a corner I came up behind a cyclist (the cockroaches of the road, don’t comment whole other debate that will take years as both have valid sides and no middle ground) there was no oncoming traffic and a broken white line so I attempted to cross the line giving the cyclist a good half cars width on to enter into a fight with the car who clearly doesn’t like cyclists either. my point being if the cyclist had to wear a transponder that had given off a signal to say “Cyclist travelling west at 20 mph” the vehicles systems could then have predicted my sudden change of direction or given a warning of the obstacle ahead. If this was applied to all vehicle the Tesla accidents of car driving under artics trailers wouldn’t have happened. This will always leave the risk ok wildlife and wind blown debris in the road. you didn’t mention Paddy Hopkirk dashboards or eight track let alone jack up kits or town and country tyres on Morris 1000 that changed colour each week.

Love what you wrote

David

Sent from my iPad

Hi DC. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, I know that e-vehicles have been around for a while, but as you say, they have been things like milk floats, street sweepers and so forth. They must slip through the regulatory cracks somehow, as there is no mention in the DVSA syllabus for Class B (Cars and Light Vans) driving licence. No mention of any electric vehicles, and nothing about track laying vehicles either, which makes me think that their speed limitations make them exempt fo the requirement of a driving licence, much like a powered mower, I will make some check.s Thanks for reading and commenting.

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