Most people seem to love hearing things like "Active Stability Management" and "Anti-Lock Braking System." But, do they actually work?
We've all seen it; a video shows a mother buckling her kids up, then she buckles herself up, and a tree falls onto the road, she swerves and barely stops. The pedalbox footage shows her jamming on the brakes very hard, while wearing some type of footwear unsuitable for driving, and then some Hollywood voice actor style voice says "this and that car os 2017 is now equipped with Falling Tree Detection System, designed to keep your family safe."
Yeah, right. So, the car knows that a tree is going to fall before it does? The car should have told us to go a different way, then, to save time! If a tree is going to fall, and block the road, surely we don't want to drive down that road.
The interesting thing about this situation, is that this is all too staged, too perfect, to be useful in the real world. Not every driver aid actually helps, in real world testing.
Most people only know that their car has a certain driver aid, and don't really have any clue about what it does, nor how it does it, or even what the end result is, to the vehicle's controls. The only people who seem to know what ABS does, are the people who have researched and studied this system.
"What does ABS do, then? Surely it must help, right?"
The simple answer about whether it helps or not, is only answered by the question: how talented are you, and how slippery is the surface you're driving on?
ABS, otherwise called Anti-Lock Braking System, prevents tires from stopping their rotation, while the chassis of the car is still moving. It prevents the brakes from stopping the tires from turning under a still-moving chassis. This doesn't always permit shorter stopping distances. Sometimes, it can actually lengthen them. But, it allows the driver to continue to steer. The problem, however, is that any decent driver should be able to steer, regardless of brake pedal input, because any good driver is a human anti-lock braking system. In rain, snow, ice, gravel, mud and wet grass, ABS is not helpful for stopping distances. It just means that the now-longer stopping distance is controlled, so you don't lose control of steering, while you slide helplessly into whichever thing you couldn't stop in time for. If it happens to be a cat or a small child, well, that's too bad. At least the car was under control when it hurt the obstacle it smashed into... RIght?
The better solution is driver training. I don't just mean teaching people how to do one single lane change after braking hard. I mean, you put someone in the driver's seat, put them on a frozen lake, put some pylons out, and tell that person to swerve around every pylon. Every time that they lock up the brakes, they will hit a pylon. For any pylon that they hit, they get sprayed in the eyes with lemon juice. Wait, that's kinda cruel. Cucumber juice?
This whole frozen lake, pylon-dodging winter driving safety crash course is way more fun than you realize... As long as the frozen lake is actually an abandoned airport runway in Northern Ontario, and the lemon juice is just clean snow... This is a photo of the author sliding a 2005 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS.
But, the most worrying thing, is that, if ABS sucks so badly on snow and ice, that it can actually extend your stopping distances by several buslengths, what does that mean for autonomous cars? Indeed, autonomous cars can, in fact, drive themselves to and from work in the middle of a nice, sunny, summer day, where the worst thing that might happen is a touch of rain. But, if even a bird defecates in the wrong spot, the camera loses its ability to see the road ahead and the car attempts to make a safe, controlled stop. The readiness of autonomous cars to deal with full-on winters, then, is dubious. The willingness of the lawmakers to allow autonomous cars to drive in the winter will also be dubious. We'll be stuck with less experience driving our cars in the summer, and we'll be thrown into the depths of the worst snow storms with limited experience, if autonomous cars are only permitted to work in the summer time. That can't be good. And if you want to call my bluff on this stuff, Ford is the only manufacturer that has done any winter testing, and the results weren't that great... The cars didn't know where to stop for red lights, couldn't safely go above ~20 km/h, and definitely couldn't regain control if they started to skid at a higher speed than that.
And, that doesn't even touch on the idea that TCS (traction control system) causes drivers to be more likely to become stuck in deep snow, or the fact that EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution) can cause cars to be unpredictable. And, then there's the idea of a car without ABS using brake lock to regain control of the car, which is something that many racing drivers will know about. When a race car starts to slide and nearly spin, many racing drivers will lock the front brakes, to prevent the car from sliding further sideways and spinning entirely around. If the back of your car starts to slide, you can induce understeer (make the front tires slide) with some brake lock, in order to make the back end stop sliding. You can use brake lock to regain control of a car. Trying that with ABS turned on yields horrifying results.
For now, then, winter driving doesn't seem to be going anywhere. ABS alone will really limit the autonomous car's function in snow and ice, given that autonomous cars will not function without all of the electronic nannies, such as TCS, ABS, EBD and so on. Maybe some day, the day will come, where you can safely allow your car to drive you to your work. That day is not upon us, and you should, instead of putting your life in the hands of some manufacturer's attempt to get lower insurance rates, know how to drive your own car as safely as possible.
Note: I do not wish to discredit actually valid safety features like frontal-collision warning and avoidance systems. Distracted driving is a major concern, and the frontal-collision warning and avoidance systems actually work very frequently. However, I am noting that any good driver should be able to outperform ABS in less-than-optimal conditions. High-performance driving lessons go much, much farther towards saving lives, than ABS or traction control systems. And, high-performance driving lessons are more fun, and are more valuable.
Drew Geier is a Canadian petrolhead whose main mission is to make motoring accessible, enjoyable, and affordable well into the future, by improving the art, hobby and lifestyle of motoring. He builds cars, and he writes about other builds. He's built a Subaru WRX and is building a Honda Civic EK.