The uncrashable car


What would think of a car so totally in touch with its surroundings it was almost impossible to crash? A good thing, surely?

Well maybe. Next year Mercedes will launch the new S-class, a car so laden with sensors it will have literal 360deg vision and therefore be able to spot any potential hazard coming at it from any direction and up to half a kilometre away.

Should some idiot be about to crash into the back of you, it will tighten your seatbelt and move your seat to its optimum position before impact. Even if you’re not moving it will jam on the brakes to stop you being shunted into the car in front. It will of course also brake if you’re the one about to drive into someone else, but it’ll now also do it if a car leaps out of a side turning ahead of you. It will wake you up if it thinks you’re nodding off, automatically switch the dashboard to infrared night vision if there’s a pedestrian or animal out there and shine a spotlight directly at the hapless person or beast to make sure that even if you don’t see it, it will see you.

This Mercedes even has headlights that can be left on full beam all the time. Because the lights are made up of dozens of LEDs (the car will be the first to go on sale without a single light bulb), it just automatically switches off those that would otherwise dazzle other road users.

All of which is amazing and will doubtless prevent a lot of accidents should you be rich enough to own a new S-class or lucky enough to pull out in front of one. So to speak.

Where I part company with the script is when the car decides it’s a better driver than you. Its cruise control is so good you can use it to follow another car through heavy urban traffic without ever touching the accelerator; if it feels you drifting out of lane it will steer you back and even drive around a curve if need be. Finally if you pull out to overtake something and it spots a car coming the other way it’ll apply the brakes on one side of the car to pull you back onto your side of the road.

Two things concern me. The less serious issue is that all such safety systems leave ridiculous margins for errors. That’s why parking sensors are useless: I don’t want to know when I’m six inches away from the car behind, I want to know when I’m six microns away, and I’ll bet plenty there will be any number of entirely safe overtaking manoeuvres the S-class will rule out because it has nothing to lose by doing so.

More importantly I am concerned about the ever-increasing propensity for cars to remove control and therefore responsibility from their drivers. It makes them lazy, less alert and more complacent. And it may be you’ll get away with driving without due care and attention if you drive a car as advanced and well engineered as the next S-class will undoubtedly be. But if you’re wealthy enough to drive such a car it’s very unlikely to be the only car you own, and how fit to drive will you be when you climb behind the wheel of a car which does not place a battalion of guardian angels on high alert at your disposal to cover your inattentive backside?

Clearly there is a fine line to be drawn here. No one in their right mind would say a driver was better off without ABS or ESP, but these are functions that operate in emergency situations. It is those that seek primarily to trim the rough edges off our driving that we could and should do without.

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