Eyes - and ears - wide shut - Russell Bulgin on electro-nannies: CAR+ archive, December 2000

Published: 09 December 2000

► Russell Bulgin on nannying driver aids
► Why drivers are becoming zombies
► An old column from 2000 in CAR+

Surrender your spatial perception and driving skill; Russell Bulgin says modern automotive electronics make them redundant

Talk cars with Alex Moulton or Jack Daniels, two of the key players in the creation of Mini – and that’s original, 100-percent-proof Mini, not BMW’s cheerlessly Play School remix – and they always scroll back to one stanza of the Issigonian automotive mantra: yes, but can you see out of it?

Moulton and Daniels reckon that if you can’t visually locate nose and tail from the driver’s seat, can’t instantly corral data vital in navigating the grind core of parallel parking, then that car has fundamentally failed. Seemed reasonable enough for a half-century or so. Not any more.

Forget encountering black ice mid-corner, or following a Toyota Starlet being driven beneath a trilby: playing Park The Galaxy used to be the scariest slice of contemporary motoring. Couldn’t see ahead of the wipers, couldn’t peer beyond the rear headrests. Now Galaxy has got park radar. Should objects up front or in the rear view mirror really be closer than they appear, a notably synthetic chime keens from fart to chirp. This makes a three-point turn sound like the intro to an early Cabaret Voltaire single. So being able to accurately locate nose and tail by eye becomes unnecessary. A cornerstone of car design is rendered irrelevant by electronics. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the future. 

Glance at Smart and you suspect it’s going to teeter, topple or tremble should breeze turn to gust or you stupidly misplace an apex. Being five feet wide and five feet tall isn’t, according to any mechanical engineering purist, the greatest starting point for sharp handling and stability sufficient to eliminate user collywobbles. Doesn’t matter. Provoke Smart and it – electronically, match – snuffs the fuel supply and even dumps the clutch. You make the corner. You befuddle that elk. You certainly don’t put Smart on its lid. You come away from Smart wondering why the company didn’t sharpen the software and narrow the car even more: Smart v2.0 should be 3ft 6in wide, with tandem seating, aimed at cleaving traffic gaps previously targeted at scooterists with limited imaginations. 

We have lived in a sheet metal world for too long, constrained by purely mechanical responses to the laws of physics. Want to corner more safely? Old-school retort: make your lower, wider, more broadly shod and sink the centre of gravity closer to the cat’s eyes. Nu-metal response: get some software dweebs crafting better code.

Don’t believe me? Try driving a Fiat Punto Sporting Speedgear, packed with a seven-speed sequential, continuously variable automatic transmission that takes less time to get friendly with than the model name does to pronounce. Slamming wholly electronic steps into the CVT controller allows beguilingly smooth foot-down manual upshifts. Plus there’s a facia button lightening the electric power steering for advanced urban zig-zaggery. 

Today, then, Smart has a stability program which allows the platform area of a car to be minimised. Ford’s big bus shrinks when you park by radar. Punto comes with a sequential transmission and selectable steering feel. In BMW’s M5 and M3, even the length of throttle travel can be selected by the driver. All electronics. All available in beta, right now. 

Traditionally, cool electronics have been an automotive add-on, bolstering maker and dealer margins. They should be a starting point. Integrate the car – including its external dimensions – around the capabilities of its software rather than dutifully slotting electronics into a tried and trusted wheelbase/track platform. And use software to bust market segments, too. 

Today’s nastiest road vehicles are big SUVs, where agricultural underpinnings and limousine intentions collide in a posh-frock-no-knickers embarrassment. Imagine being able to configure ride comfort/ride height/steering response/throttle action/shift points/anti-slip control at the twist of a switch; maybe then these leviathans would be fun to drive on asphalt and actually able to traverse terrain tougher than the rugby club car park. 

Far-fetched? Far from it. Compared to telematics and sat-nav, this is easy. And, right now, the value of the electronics in any BMW saloon is greater than the cost of its sheet steel. Plus successful parking is no longer about look and learn. You just listen up instead. 

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000