From the March 2020 issue of Car and Driver.
As a regular driver of new cars with all manner of sensors and warnings and chimes and buzzers, I give my attention to very few of them anymore. I have beep fatigue. Every morning as I back out of my driveway, I am greeted by a chorus of beeps, buzzes, and bongs because whatever vehicle I happen to be in goes into full panic mode. Sure, the route from my backyard parking spot to the street is a sort of low-speed autocross course. Playing the role of the orange cones are a free-standing basketball hoop; ankle-high bricks surrounding an ornamental tree; a row of arborvitae; aluminum fence posts at the very edges of the driveway; a long concrete curb to the right, beyond which are plants my wife would like to see survive; and, finally, a portion of my brick house. At least the arborvitae don’t seem to mind the occasional swipe from a side mirror.
Point is, because I never remember to turn off the parking sensors, I’ve grown inured to the cacophony. Only cars with rear automated emergency braking get my attention anymore because they slam on the brakes when there’s a bush nearby.
I bring up my petty annoyance not just so that you, too, can be annoyed, but so that you will understand why it took me so long to consider a warning recently presented by a Porsche 911. I was trundling along on a stretch of I-75 that had earlier been soaked by a passing shower. No problem. But then: BONG! “Caution. Please adapt driving style. Switch on Wet mode.” In these circumstances, I have been conditioned to think, “Pfft! Whatever!” And I might have said exactly that out loud. I let the warning extinguish itself. But some 10 minutes later: BONG! “Caution. Please adapt driving style.” This happened at least three more times as I tried to make a very important appointment with a Panera Bread up the road.
Finally, I took decisive action. I texted Porsche public relations: “Why is your car trying to tell me what to do?” It didn’t occur to me to ask how this vehicle knew that I was driving on a wet road. I assumed the car must have recognized that I had the windshield wipers on. But wait. Since traffic was light and the storm had already passed, I didn’t have the wipers on. What the hell? I flashed back to that scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I played the roles of both Steve Martin and John Candy. “He says we’re going the wrong way,” said Pund. “Oh, he’s drunk! How would he know where we’re going?” replied Pund. “Yeah, how would he know?” Pund said.
“There are acoustic sensors in the front wheel wells that can sense the difference in pitch between a dry road and a wet road,” read Porsche PR’s cogent reply. Such Faszination! This is remarkable for a few reasons. First, that the PR guy in no way implied that, as a car journalist to whom he had loaned a $100K-plus car, I should have already known that. Second, that the system, the first of its kind in the industry, worked exactly as intended.
The car automatically sets the stability-control system into a program designed for wet conditions even if you, like me, ignore the warning. Switch the vehicle into Wet mode, as instructed, and it softens the throttle response, extends the wing at speeds above 55 mph for more downforce, and, in all-wheel-drive 911s, diverts some torque to the front axle.
Now, it’s true that we long ago developed silica-based sheets of transparent material with which to wrap the upper portion of cars. Through this “glass” streams electromagnetic radiation, a portion of which our eyes can detect. With this information, we humans have typically been able to recognize the presence of moisture on a road.
Still, that a car can use mechanical ears to sense the conditions in which it’s being driven is impressive. Such ability will come in handy in our increasingly automated future. Someday, the system should be sufficiently trusted so that it can automatically tailor the car without human intervention, which would mean no more damn beeping. But for now, I’d prefer that it just continue to bong at me, so I can ignore it.
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