When people talk about what they’re looking for in a new car, they often cite “safety” as one of the top attributes their new car should have. Well, duh. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who wants to buy a dangerous car.
Modern technology provides a lot of safety features, but owners need to know how these features work and how to properly take advantage of them. After all, cars have become very smart, so drivers need to keep up.
I got to experience how various safety systems work in a closed parking lot as part of the Lexus Safety Experience. It’s no secret that Lexus, and parent company Toyota, had their backs against the wall earlier this year as they were accused of building cars that accelerated out of control through no fault of the drivers. With the exception of a few cases (where floor mats had been caught under gas pedals), exhaustive investigation by the government concluded that, essentially, people were mistakenly stepping on the gas instead of the brake.
So Lexus wanted to point out that technology – wrongly blamed at times for “possessed” cars – is actually making driving way safer than it was in previous decades. Back-to-back examples of cars with and without the safety features in play really showed that when used properly, they can be invaluable.
First up was a demonstration of anti-lock brakes. ABS doesn’t necessarily make cars stop in less distance, but it allows the front wheels to keep rotating instead of just sliding straight forward. That’s the key. Anti-lock is there so that you can steer around an object, not just smash into it. A car with its ABS disabled trying to stop on a large patch of sand just plowed forward. An identical car with the ABS on was able to steer into the next lane to avoid whatever imaginary thing was in our path.
Next was VDIM, which is the Lexus acronym for their stability control system. In a hulking LX570 sport utility with VDIM switched off, a low speed turn on sand was difficult to maneuver through. When we had it engaged (the default mode whenever the engine is started), steering through the tight turn was much easier, as the system’s computer accounted for which wheels had traction and which didn’t. In the blink of an eye, individual wheels had brake pressure applied in order to stabilize the LX.
And a new system has been created to calm fears that a car with a stuck accelerator can’t be stopped. Here too, computer aids come into play. Lexus calls it Smart Stop, essentially a brake override system. If the car detects that the throttle is pressed down hard, and the brakes are applied at the same time with strong force, the electronic throttle is shut down. Even in a car that didn’t have the system (dealers are able to “flash” the new technology into cars’ electronic control units to update them), we were shown that strong, steady application of the brake pedal will stop an accelerating car in relatively short order.
And in that so-called runaway car, our instructor gave us an additional demonstration. While we were braking and mashing the gas at the same time, he moved the shift lever into neutral. The engine revved up (but was then electronically rev-limited) and the car slowed dramatically. Situation over.
Unfortunately, not everyone can experience these hands-on scenarios, but dealers have also been trained. Next time you’re on a test drive (of any car), ask the salesperson to fully demonstrate how these advanced safety features work. Cars are getting smarter, so let’s make sure we’re just as smart about driving them.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.