There I was, driving home along the M25 at about 10pm the other night, when suddenly my car braked of its own accord and veered to the right, without any intervention from me.
In that scary moment when I thought I’d lost control, I feared that I might have hit black ice, which had been forecast for the South East.
But when my heart stopped thumping, I realised what had happened — or at least, what I thought must have happened.
The thing is that my super-duper, all-singing, all-dancing, new Mercedes-Benz A180, which I bought as a semi-retirement present to myself a year ago, is equipped with just about every high-tech safety feature devised by computer scientists.
In that scary moment when I thought I’d lost control, I feared that I might have hit black ice, which had been forecast for the South East
Among these is something called ‘active lane-keeping assist’ which, as its name suggests, is designed to prevent the car from straying from one lane into another if the driver’s attention wanders.
Well, my attention hadn’t wandered for a second that night before the car took it into its computerised head to apply the brakes and steer to the right automatically. I was safely in the middle of my lane, where I wanted to be.
But I did notice that there were pronounced skid marks on the road just ahead, where some time earlier a lorry must have swerved to the right, presumably to avoid a collision.
My theory (though I readily admit I may be wrong) is that the Merc’s built-in sensors had spotted these and mistaken them for lane-markings, thus triggering the ‘corrective action’ that set me momentarily on a course for the crash barriers in the central reservation.
Yes, automotive technology is wonderful — when it works as it’s designed to. But you have only to remember the 38 people who have died on Britain’s not-so-smart ‘smart’ motorways to realise that it can be a killer when it doesn’t [File photo]
Anyway, I’m happy to report that there was nothing trying to overtake me at the time — and after that split-second of panic I was back in control, with no harm done.
But the incident was unsettling enough to shake my trust in active lane-keeping assist. I’ve now disabled the function and have no plans to use it again.
But then, as long-suffering readers will be aware, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with new technology.
Brought up in the age of wind-up gramophones, two-channel black-and-white television, snail mail, Bakelite telephones, typewriters, telex machines, paper-and-pencil long division and the AA road atlas, I’ve marvelled at each new wonder as it has come along.
The pocket calculator, word processor, video cassette recorder, music streaming, multi-channel TV, email, online shopping, Satnav and the smartphone — every new arrival has taken my breath away, leaving me gawping like an Amazonian tribesman, on first seeing David Attenborough’s helicopter clattering overhead.
Yet at the same time, each technological advance has made me feel a little more stupid and helpless.
I understood how a typewriter worked, and how a gramophone stylus produced sounds from a groove in a vinyl record.
At a pinch, I could even explain to you the mechanics of a four-stroke internal combustion engine — though I don’t think I could begin to build one, if a time-machine were miraculously to transport me back to an age before its invention.
But before we bring on the driverless car, could we please make double sure it won’t jam on the brakes at the mere hint of a skid mark or falling leaf? [File photo]
But I fear I shall go to my grave without having the faintest idea how a computer works, let alone how to fix one when it goes wrong (as computers always seem to do, the moment they see me coming).
God knows, I’ve tried to grasp the basics of the science — and I’m most grateful to the reader who tried to enlighten me when I confessed to my bafflement ten years ago.
‘There is nothing to a computer really,’ he wrote. ‘Get a motherboard, insert some RAM and a CPU, attach to an ATX tower, connect a power supply unit, add a graphics card to the PCIe slot, insert a keyboard and mouse to the USB, attach an HDD to the SATA port and you are off. Anything breaks then you just replace that piece of hardware. Simples.’
Well, thanks for trying, sir. But I’m afraid that I remain as much in the dark as ever.
In fact the only advice I feel qualified to pass on — though I don’t always adhere to it myself — is that we should never commit anything to a computer or a smartphone unless we’re happy for it to be read or overheard by everyone in the whole wide world.
But I’m straying from my point, which is that nothing excites my mixed feelings about modern technology — both my love and my loathing of it — more strongly than the latest advances in automotive computer science.
As I’ve admitted before, I was first drawn to the Merc by the fact that it positively bristles with electronic bells and whistles. It can park and observe speed limits automatically. Many of its functions respond to voice commands (just say ‘Hey, Mercedes, I’m cold,’ and it will turn up the heating).
Brought up in the age of wind-up gramophones, two-channel black-and-white television, snail mail, Bakelite telephones (above), typewriters, telex machines, paper-and-pencil long division and the AA road atlas, I’ve marvelled at each new wonder as it has come along [File photo]
If I’m involved in an accident, and fail to tell the car that I’m OK, it will automatically contact the emergency services.
Oh, and if I absent-mindedly leave the car unlocked, my smartphone will alert me — and I can lock it remotely from the other side of the world, using an app which will also tell me my tyre pressures and exactly how much petrol is left in the tank.
All this and much, much more it can do — almost everything you can imagine, indeed, short of dispensing altogether with the need for a driver. So what’s not to love? Well, plenty, I fear.
For one thing, I’ve grown increasingly exasperated by the constant bleeping of warning signals when the on-board computer judges that I’m too close to the car in front, or if a cyclist or pedestrian crosses in front of me when I’m stationary at the lights.
Occasionally the warnings seem to be triggered by nothing more threatening than a falling leaf.
Meanwhile, I’m fed up with having to repeat instructions to the voice-activated control system, when it fails to understand them first, second or third time round. It’s worse, far worse, than Alexa.
As for the bewildering array of red, green and orange symbols that light up around the speedometer when I activate the ignition (keyless, natch), I still haven’t a clue what most of them mean.
But worst of all was that unnerving swerve on the motorway, which made me feel that computerised safety features have a fair way to go before they reach perfection.
Whisper it softly, but there are even times when I find myself coming round to Mrs U’s view that a less sophisticated car might make the driver feel more fully in control.
Yes, automotive technology is wonderful — when it works as it’s designed to. But you have only to remember the 38 people who have died on Britain’s not-so-smart ‘smart’ motorways to realise that it can be a killer when it doesn’t.
Despite all these reservations, however, I remain firmly convinced that technology holds the key to solving most of our motoring problems. I’m thinking particularly of elderly drivers, living miles from the shops in remote rural areas.
Often with no public transport to fall back upon, they depend absolutely on their cars for any hope of freedom and a fulfilling life.
Yet every time an older driver has a crash, the clamour grows louder for compulsory re-testing of Britain’s 5.5 million drivers who are over 70 (though, strangely, nobody kicks up half so much fuss about drivers in their teens and early 20s, who cause many more accidents per head).
This week, after a review of global research, the RAC Foundation found that new in-car technologies — such as collision alerts, fatigue detection and, yes, lane-departure warnings — make re-testing the over-70s increasingly unnecessary.
With my own 70th less than four years away, I pray the Government will agree.
But before we bring on the driverless car, could we please make double sure it won’t jam on the brakes at the mere hint of a skid mark or falling leaf?
I’m thinking particularly of elderly drivers, living miles from the shops in remote rural areas. Often with no public transport to fall back upon, they depend absolutely on their cars for any hope of freedom and a fulfilling life [File photo]