Motoring Con Brio!: Smarter Systems for a Dumbing World

words: Giovanni Tomasi, photos: Audi AG, TAG Heuer

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the Summer 2017 issue of the Audi Club North America quattro quarterly print magazine. If you don’t receive quattro quarterly and wish to subscribe, join the Audi Club North America HERE.

This April I finally delivered on the promise of an “Islands Vacation” made to Linda since she did not consider the long weekend in Newport Rhode Island as qualifying. Our destination Grand Cayman is renowned for outstanding scuba diving and a reef dive was definitely on the agenda. As such, a refresher dive was recommended including a test to make sure I still remembered the basics. When I became open water certified in 1981, one of the basic rules: “Plan your dive and dive your plan” consisted of charting out the dive with the essential dive tables. A good watch and depth gauge were as crucial as the air tank pressure gauge.

A quick review of the dive tables gave me the confidence to plan any repetitive dive that the instructor may have presented. Instead he just said: “As for dive tables, you don’t need those. The dive computer does it for you”. A dive computer in the pressure gauge console records and monitors depth, dive time, surface interval, and provides all the information for the second dive. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the electronic device malfunctioned while 100 feet below the surface, so I still set the bezel on my watch to record the immersion time.

Automation and smart systems are taking over nearly every aspect of our lives, including our beloved motoring world. Smart GPS navigation, traction and stability management, lane assist, proximity detection and collision avoidance have become standard, and self-driving vehicles are well in the works. But, these are not flawless. In previous con Brio columns I described several instances where technology messed up, like my navigation system taking me through the New Hampshire dirt back roads instead of to Canaan Motorsports. It seems sometimes, many of these electronic nannies build over-confidence in under-qualified drivers, with serious consequences when driver or malfunction gives the nanny time off.

Sometimes I fear we may be in an unstoppable trend of making our vehicles smarter so we can compensate for the dumbing down of the driving population. Will a driver education test consist of programming your iPhone to Starbucks for a latte, get in the car, and let the vehicle do the rest? Failing will be if the beverage is spilled or not ordered with the proper lingo. As for minor details like rights of way, lane discipline, skid control, and cornering dynamics, drivers will not need to know about those silly points, the car computer will do that.

What about our beloved high performance driving events (HPDEs)? Get in your car, strap in, and give a voice command of the group you are in: novice, intermediate, or advanced. For novices the car will drive around giving verbal pointers of turn-in, apex, and track-out, gradually adding more advanced techniques as the student progresses in (passenger) skill. Given the high horsepower machines where instructors have only a communicator to keep both driver and mentor safe, this is not such a bad scenario – only kidding!

In the early days of the automobile breakdowns were unavoidable, drivers had to be mechanically competent, and racecars had a mechanic riding along with the driver. Reliability has come a long way with embedded sensors advising about service intervals, tire inflation, and brake pad wear. Mechanical competency is no longer required and the electronic brains can now compensate for deficiency of driver’s skill, lack of attention, or a combination of both. Safety monitoring systems have made our vehicles safer, but not done much to improve the most important element of an automobile: the nut behind the wheel. A good understanding of car dynamics and the capability to control a vehicle when either ego or fault disables the nannies is as essential as is basic mechanical knowledge in those rare situations when our four-wheeled friend breaks down.

But all is not lost. Spirited motoring is still alive and drivers who pilot rather than ride the automobile may not be in full extinction. Our Audi Club HPDEs sell out within hours of becoming available online, students return for multiple events and our friends from Audi Sport GmbH finally grace us here across the pond with their new RS 3 sleeper sedan that will out-handle and outperform much more horsepower-laden machines. Motoring con Brio will still be here for the four rings aficionados who realize that no electronic gadget will replace a competent driver.

I will always enjoy piloting Roxy our 1987.5 Coupe GT with no ABS and no traction control around a wet track at speeds far less than what cars equipped with traction enhancing features can do, however an RS 3, with the new electronic brains may not be such a bad addition to the Scuderia Tomasi. But, in spite of all the nannies, I will continue to work on improving the nut behind the wheel and will keep setting the time bezel on my dive watch when I Scuba!