Andrew Frankel – Road cars

Black box vs common sense?

Car engineers are a particular bunch – believe me, I’ve met a few. They live in a world outside our own, where language has evolved to such a level that the usual supporting structures you and I call sentences have been dismantled and compressed into acronyms of often impenetrable depth and complexity.

I once sat down to interview a Bentley engineer about the electrical systems used on the Continental GT and found myself having to admit shamefully that I had no idea what a chumsel was. I’d presumed it was some super-trick slice of electronic wizardry whose purpose I was never going to understand let alone its function. As it turned out, a chumsel is nothing more or less than a humble brake light. A Central High-Mounted Stop Light, to be precise.

But they have to be this way, simply to exist in the world of modern car design. Some of the technologies at their disposal simply beggar belief: other engineers in Crewe told me Bentley possessed one instrument sensitive enough to detect in an Olympic-size swimming pool the sodium content of a teaspoon of salt poured into it, another that could weigh a fingerprint and a third that could calculate to within the weight of one feather the force required to tear a telephone directory in two.

Even back in 1996 when BMW launched the E38 generation of the 750i, it came to market with more computer processing power than that which had taken man to the moon in 1969; which means that most modern cars would make an Apollo spacecraft look about as sophisticated as an abacus.

I’ve just been driving a new Honda Accord and although it is not a car I’d usually choose to dwell upon for a page such as this, I think I should share with you that, thanks to a combination of radar, sensors and cameras, this otherwise entirely unremarkable mass-produced family saloon will maintain an even distance to the car in front on the motorway and can steer itself should you start to drift out of your lane; – and all without the smallest input from you. Similarly it will slam on the brakes if you’re about to ram the car in front so that even if a crash is not avoided, its consequences can be radically mitigated.

This level of attention goes down to the smallest detail, as the following example shows: because the satellite navigation knows precisely where you are, the direction in which you are travelling, the time of day and the time of year, it can give the climate control a precise fix on the location of the sun relative to the vehicle so that the air-conditioning can, in turn, fine tune the flow of fresh air around the car to minimise the effects of solar heat soak.

Objectively this is staggeringly impressive. The only question is whether it actually makes a blind bit of difference in the real world. In 1988 BMW introduced the E34 Five Series whose ventilation controls consisted of a fan, a temperature dial and three sliders directing the air flow in whatever quantities you chose to, respectively, the windscreen, your face or your feet. Two decades later, I’ve yet to come across another system that works so well, largely because it left it up to you. The increasing presumption of modern car makers is that you can’t even be trusted to execute such simple tasks as choosing how you’d like the air distributed, let alone doing something as difficult and dangerous as driving a car in a straight line along a motorway.

Where will it all end? This autumn Volvo will launch its new XC60 SUV which, if you’re in town and so long as the road is dry and the driver stays within the speed limit, should be almost impossible to crash into another car because it will see the danger before you and bring you to a halt before impact. Buy a Lexus LS460 today and as you look at the little plastic box on the steering column and wonder what its purpose might be, it will be looking right back at you, making sure you’ve not nodded off. If you have, it will sound alarms, flash lights and even nudge the brakes to shake you from your reverie.

Eventually the ongoing proliferation of systems such as these and their yet more clever and sophisticated descendants will make poorer drivers of their users. They will become ever more reliant on these virtual safety nets, ever more inclined to drive when unfit to do so through fatigue and who knows what other factors, because they enjoy the subliminal reassurance that their car is more clever than they are, quicker to see and react to danger and better at knowing precisely what action to take. All of which may be true.

But it’s not really the point. You don’t find airline pilots pressing the Autoland button and putting their feet up on finals just because they can – nine out of ten times the most sophisticated of aircraft will be landed manually, and for a very good reason. Safety must begin at source, which means that responsibility lies with the person behind the wheel, not the ECU under the bonnet.

I’m not advocating the blanket removal of primary or secondary safety systems, but it is interesting to ponder what would happen if, instead of blundering around in a car that teaches you that your recklessness need have no consequences, a large hand leapt out of the dashboard to deliver the sturdy smack around the chops you undoubtedly deserve. And while we’re on the subject, rather than simply alleviating the symptoms of our lack of road discipline, would it not be better to address the cause – namely a driving test for which no experience of driving in the dark, in bad weather or on a motorway is required?

Years ago, another motoring journalist once opined that if you wanted to make cars really safe, each one should have a sharpened spike fitted to the steering wheel and pointing directly at the driver’s chest. He knew then what we seem increasingly to be forgetting now: on its own, a car can’t hurt, maim or kill anyone. The responsibility for that did, does and always will lie with ourselves. In the long term, cars which contrive to help us duck that responsibility will do us no favours.

Vauxhall VXR8

Ever feel totally out of step with those around you? For months I’ve been reading eulogies about Vauxhall’s 6-litre V8-powered, Holden-derived VXR8 saloon, but for various reasons had failed to cross paths with one. Now I wish I hadn’t bothered. It’s reasonably comfortable and quite attractive but that’s about it on the plus side. It’s dreadfully cheap on the inside, handles with little more than basic competence and, most shocking of all, doesn’t even feel that quick despite its alleged 411bhp. And while others say it’s cheap at £35,000, a BMW 335i is cheaper still and if you’d driven both, you’d know how absurd that situation is. I note that a new 6.2-litre engine with another 14bhp is to be introduced, but suspect it will take more than that to make a silk purse out of this particular pig’s ear.

Audi TT TDi

The reality gap is growing. From Audi’s blurb on the launch of its new TT TDi, I was surprised to learn that Audi was the first manufacturer “to break the 400kph land speed record” and the first “to win Le Mans three times back to back”. It goes on to state that the TT TDi is the world’s first diesel-powered sports car.

The first two claims can be argued on technicalities. Auto Union – of which Audi was then one of four elements – did in 1937 set the first Class B record above 400km/h, even if by then the actual LSR was held by Malcolm Campbell at over 300mph. Perhaps Audi would argue that Bluebird’s constructors, Thomson & Taylor, were not a ‘manufacturer’. In the second, Porsche and Ferrari’s string of consecutive Le Mans wins (six and seven of them, respectively, compared to Audi’s current four) were not all as works teams. And dare I mention Bentley and Matra? But the first diesel sports car? I think not. Why is a TT a sports car in a way that the pre-existing BMW 123d Coupé or Alfa Brera 2.4 JTDm are not? Both have more power than the TT, higher top speeds and similarly uninhabitable rear cabins.

The silly thing is that the TT TDi is a fine example of its kind and does not need this kind of ham-fisted assistance. It’s not a sports car any more than the aforementioned BMW or Alfa – it’s not even a particularly sporting car. But it is good looking, well built, fast and frugal, and demands very little of its driver. What more could any prospective buyer of a compact Audi coupé desire?