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Editor Drew Winter absorbs and responds to input from Audi S5rsquos instrument array
<p><strong>Editor Drew Winter absorbs and responds to input from Audi S5&rsquo;s instrument array.</strong><br /> <br /> </p>

Recalibrating the Driver

You may not consciously realize it, but modern vehicles are reprogramming how you drive, from lane changing and backing up to steering, braking and accelerating.

Judging by the nominees for this year’s Wards 10 Best User Experiences, driver-assistance systems aren’t just changing the way our cars and trucks operate. They’re beginning to recalibrate the way we drive.

Similar to the advent of antilock brakes or stability control, semi-autonomous systems such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, blindspot warnings, forward-collision alerts and automatic emergency braking are having a dramatic impact on the way we drive and how we interact with the most basic functions: steering, braking and acceleration.

Unlike interactions with communication, audio or navigation systems where driver input produces an expected result, today’s vehicles are providing the input and drivers are expected to respond.

A few examples:

  • As blindspot alerts become commonplace on newer models, the telltale warning lights are subtly retraining many drivers out of the practice of doing a quick peripheral glance to verify the adjacent lane is clear.
  • We back up and park with the aid of sensors and cameras, truly giving us eyes in the back of our heads as we watch a video screen instead of using mirrors or craning our necks to see our reverse path.
  • Drivers even may be learning – or relearning – to use turn signals lest they suffer the wrath of lane-departure warning beeps, seat buzzers or flashes of light alerting against crossing a lane divider.
  • On a long-distance drive in the all-new ’18 Honda Odyssey, we learned to lighten our grip on the steering wheel to allow the minivan’s active lane-keeping assistance system to make constant, minute corrections to keep the vehicle centered in the lane.
  • In vehicles equipped with full-range adaptive cruise control, we’re rapidly learning to let the car handle the speed control – accelerating and braking – to take the drudgery out of long-distance drives or stop-and-go commuter traffic.

With all of these assistive systems, it is consistency of the system paired with clear visual indicators that “retrain” the driver and provide confidence the system will perform as expected. The best of the bunch aren’t necessarily the most expensive – we like the systems in the $34,000 Mazda CX-5 and the $29,000 Subaru Impreza as much as we appreciate the capabilities of the Audi S5 Sportback or the BMW 540i at more than double the price.


Some argue this is leading us down the road to fully autonomous vehicles where we we’ll have to give up control and independent driving in exchange for safety and comfort. But there’s a counterpoint that some of these features make us better and even more engaged drivers.

Consider two of this year’s 10 Best UX winners, the Dodge Durango SRT and the Ford F-150 Raptor. Given the reams of data available on everything from lap times and powertrain performance to launch control and vehicle balance characteristics, the driver of either of these vehicles is far more engaged in driving and controlling the vehicle than ever before.

Looking ahead, as we all become semi-autonomous-vehicle test “engineers” for the next decade or so, we’ll learn to react and respond depending on how much or how little our vehicle’s systems are handling any given driving situation.

Just as we learned to stomp on the brakes to activate ABS, eventually we’ll be trained to not step on the brake as our vehicle brings us to a safe and assured stop, holds and resumes the pace as the cars ahead proceed on.

[email protected] @bobgritzinger

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