[This is a cross posting of my story done for TheLocalTourist.com]
That lyric from “Big Yellow Taxi” kept running through my mind on a gorgeous Friday morning not too long ago. I had the opportunity to have some fun, but with a purpose driving a few different types of vehicles at the Lexus Safety Experience here in Chicago.
With all the recent press about unintended acceleration, Lexus thought it was a good idea to take the show on the road to dealers and to a select group of media to show off the safety features available on Lexus vehicles.
The idea behind the day was this; You drive two identical vehicles on three different courses demonstrating some of the safety features available on Lexus vehicles with a professional driver in each car instructing and watching you. The first vehicle had the safety feature disabled, the second vehicle had the feature enabled and you were driving on a course laid out with cones. Now, I’m no gearhead, but I love to drive, so you think I’m passing this up? No way, but on to the examples.
First up, The Lexus ES 350 (pictured above) and the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) . Most everyone thinks of this safety as only helping you stop, but as the professional driver put it, another way to define the ABS acronym is “The Ability to Brake and Steer”. This example was the most fun of the day for me and here’s how it worked. I was told to floor it until I heard the pro driver tell me to brake hard when I reached a patch of sand laid down for the course and then turn as hard as I could to the right until I locked the steering wheel. That’s the way most drivers react in a situation like, say, you’re driving down the expressway and someone in front of you moves over just in time for you to stare down the business end of a the cement truck stopped in the middle of the road.
So, being duty bound to follow my directions to the letter, I floored it until the Pro told me to brake, slammed them on and cranked the wheel all the way to the right. The first ES 350 with ABS disabled? I went straight as an arrow just off the end of the course, knocking out the cones at the far end. In other words, I would have been testing the front crumple zones and airbags on the car while enjoying a nice cup of fresh cement soup. As for the second ES 350? While I can’t say for sure that I would have missed the cement truck entirely, I was pretty close to the full car length to the right of where I started and no one in the passenger compartment would have come in direct contact with the imposing imaginary cement truck. Score one for ABS.
Next up was the RX 350 and Vehicle Stability control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC). Basically, the TRAC system monitors and controls wheel slippage (spinning) by reducing the throttle and maybe even applying the brakes to the wheel that’s slipping. To show its effect, there was a tarp that was covered with soapy water and I was asked to floor it once I drove the RX 350 on the tarp. The first RX 350 with TRAC disabled was like flooring it after a foot and a half of fallen snow on a Chicago side street before the snowplow could get there. You got it, going nowhere, fast. The second with TRAC enabled, a little slippage at first, but not half that of the first RX 350. I could actually see getting down a snow covered Chicago street in that vehicle with little problems.
The second half of this was the VSC and I was asked to get up to 25 mph and without touching the brakes or accelerator, make as tight a 180 degree turn to the right as the steering would allow. In the first SUV it was pretty much what you’d think. Even at 25 mph there was tire squeal and the momentum took me outside the tight radius of the corner, basically feeling out of control and riding it until it got back under control and that was with neither accelerator or brakes applied. Just out of control enough to prove the point. The second time was fun and a full sensory experience as well. the moment I felt the weight shift due to the momentum of the SUV, a warning signal started beeping that reminded me of every movie I’ve seen where an airplane lost cabin pressure in the cockpit. But instead of an air-mask dropping from the ceiling, the brakes were applied automatically and the the SUV righted itself and made the turn easily. It was just letting me know that it was taking care of the brakes for me, in this case. I was grinning at that one, but it was an obvious difference in the turn that allowed me to be in control of the SUV. An interesting side note is that these features can be disengaged for the more experienced driver. I don’t think that most drivers would think to do that in the first place, but it’s good to know that you have that choice.
Last in my rotation was the Smart Stop Technology course. This situation was a little different. This was the only example where the first car, a 2010 IS 250 didn’t have this safety feature at all (the IS 350 is pictured here). The second car. also a 2010 IS 250 had Smart Stop technology. Why the difference? it was in 2010 that Lexus implemented the feature as a standard on all its models, the first manufacturer to do so. What this does is if the accelerator is open more than 1/3, the car is going faster than 5 mph and the brakes are applied firmly, the throttle is cut automatically, speaking directly to the unintended acceleration issue. It was designed to simulate a stuck throttle and thisproved to be the most difficult for a lot of people to do because you had to drive with both feet: one on the gas pedal and the other on the brakes. It was pretty fun for me too.
Before I started the pro pointed out that brakes will override the accelerator every time in every car and will stop the car, regardless of whether or not this safety feature is available on the car, but the again the human element plays as big a part in a situation like this as any safety feature, How quickly you think and can react in an emergency situation depends on so many things. I was told to floor it and then when the pro driver said “brake” hit the brakes as hard as possible and stay on both the accelerator and the brakes until I came to a complete stop. Then and only then could I release both of the pedals.
When he told me to brake the first car I pushed the pedal so hard that I literally lifted myself off the seat while I came to a stop and then released. The second went pretty much the same way, except as I was stopping the pro driver said “Stay on both pedals and look at your tachometer”. I looked just in time to see the needle of the tachometer finish dropping off because there was no power to the engine, even though my foot on the accelerator was on the floor. It was a very graphic example and impressive, too.
As I walked away with an ear to ear grin on my face and that line from Big Yellow Taxi running through my mind, I was thinking about the things you don’t have to think about anymore when you drive a car today. Well, at least when you drive a Lexus.