Autonomous Driving: The first taste could be better
I guess calling it "driving" is probably not very accurate. The system is autonomous emergency braking, and I've had my second bad taste of it this morning.
We were in a fully loaded 2012 Volvo S60 in which I was a passenger. The driver was inching towards a lowered carpark boom gate in anticipation of its opening when the S60's City Safety feature obviously thought he had inched a bit too far and slammed the brakes on, bringing the car to a quick and clumsy stop. Volvo brakes and tyres being rather good at stopping and gripping, the halt was so abrupt that we'd all thought we'd actually hit something, or perhaps kerbed the wheels, until one of us noticed the innocuous message on the dash: the car's mea culpa.
The first time it happened was when I was driving... at least up until the point when the car decided it knew better. It was a borrowed Volvo V60 fitted with City Safety. The wife and I were driving to the shops and I was just nosing into a parking space. The thing about this space was that it had a low hanging bush growing over it - no problem for a car to slot its bonnet underneath. But no, the V60 wouldn't have a bar of it. Despite my foot being on the brakes to bring us to a smooth stop, we were instead thrown into our seatbelts (and the groceries on the back seat thrown onto the floor) by full anti-lock-brakes-with-brake-assist activation. My wife - usually tolerant of my driving habits but maybe thinking I was channelling Frank Costanza that day - gave me a look that said "Can't you drive properly?"
Why do I call it a bad taste? I suppose as a driver who is used to cars that just do what they're told, an autonomous system that makes a Type I error is especially galling. It's easy to forget that the system has prevented plenty of crashes, just not when I happen to be the one driving. It's a reverse take on the "it can't possibly happen to me" mentality people form when we think about car crashes. Maybe on a deeper level, we don't want the machines to take over, especially when "we know what we're doing, dammit!" This despite the fact that the system could probably save you hundreds of dollars in repairs or insurance excesses when it does its thing when warranted.This very human response will need to be considered as it could potentially amount to consumer backlash if it gains critical mass. A quick google search showed that I'm not the only person on the web to think so:
...our experience with City Safety and Pedestrian Detection has been disappointing across the board. At an event where Volvo invited drivers to coast headlong into an inflatable pedestrian, one of our editors plowed right over it, trapping it under the car. The explanation? The driver was stepping on the brake, which defeats the feature.
That doesn't explain why nearly every time I attempted to leave our parking garage, the car's sensors caught sight of the gate before it raised, or perhaps the structure to which it's hinged, and triggered full-on panic braking. Each time, I was indeed on the brake pedal, slowing down so the transponder on the windshield would raise the arm. The first time this happened, I thought I had run into something, so violent was the braking. I neglected to warn a co-worker (oops), and he took the car out and had the same experience.
In theory, I'm in favour of this type of safety feature, and I reject the frequent objection that drivers will become more careless, relying on the computer to do all the work. In practise, though, I can't abide false activations. I could easily have been rear-ended by an anxious driver behind me. Might the same thing happen at a toll booth? Even something less dire, like heaving a beverage all over the dashboard, can be justified if it prevents an accident, but if it happens due to a false alarm, you'll be much less forgiving.
Source: Expert review on the 2011 Volvo S60 by Joe Wiesenfelder
So after all is said and done, is City Safety a good thing? Well that depends on how much attention you pay on the road when driving.