ALAMEDA, Calif.--I'm hurtling down a piece of asphalt, my right foot jamming the accelerator of the Lexus I'm driving to the floor, speed building rapidly, my heart rate rising, when suddenly, I add my left foot to the mix, jamming it down hard on the brake pedal.
The car screeches to a halt.
For anyone who's been paying attention the last year or so, the memory of Toyota's highly publicized troubles related to cars suddenly and irrevocably accelerating should still be fresh. And that's almost certainly why the Lexus representative--and professional driver--who's sitting in the passenger seat next to me is so intent on making sure I understand that, on this car at least, there's a system for overriding a full throttle situation and getting the vehicle to come to a quick, and orderly, stop.
Lexus, of course, is owned by Toyota. So it's no wonder that during the morning of demonstrations of Lexus safety features I attended here Thursday, this so-called "Smart Stop" technology was one of the highlights.
Over the course of about two hours, I joined a group of other reporters and bloggers in a series of demos designed to showcase the latest Lexus safety features. We got chances to try out driving conditions that tested the cars' vehicle stability control, traction control, antilock brakes, and, yes, the smart stop technology.
This event, of course, was all about Lexus and its roster of features. And because I'm not a car reviewer by trade, I wondered where all this technology fit into the larger automotive environment. The answer, I was told by an independent reviewer who was on hand, was that there wasn't anything unique about Lexus' offerings--Mercedes, BMW, and a few other manufacturers all offer similar sets of safety features, he told me--but that all in all, it was a noteworthy collection, and one that seemed to giver Lexus drivers a nice set of things to feel comfortable about when getting behind the wheel of one of the company's cars.
I'm a pretty conservative driver. It's true that I have no problem going 85 on open roads, but I don't tend to mess about much when I'm driving. Maybe a rollover accident 11 years ago while driving 80 in the desert cured me of any automotive wildness I might have had.
So on Thursday, when I was being encouraged to floor the car I was driving and then take it into a sharp curve without braking, I was more than a little hesitant.
But I'd already seen another one of my fellow writers do this move, after the pro driver himself had demonstrated it, so I figured, how hard can it be?
Before testing out the technology, we first tried the maneuver with all of the vehicle stability and traction controls disabled. We rolled the car--first a model with rear-wheel drive, and then one with all-wheel drive--up to a start point on a tarp covered in a nice sheen of water. Then we hit the gas. The rear-wheel drive car shimmied a bit on the tarp before hitting the pavement, and then the goal was to get it up to 27 miles an hour before turning hard into a sharp curve. Without the technology, and in the rear-wheel drive Lexus, the vehicle made the turn, but it definitely pulled to the left as I steered.
Moving to the all-wheel-drive car, and engaging the traction and vehicle stability control systems--it was totally different. First, the car barely twitched as it sped off the tarp, and then, when I yanked the steering wheel hard to the right, the car responded, quickly and easily, a beeping sound indicating that the safety technology had automatically gone into effect accompanying a quick and very noticeable jump in G-forces.
The idea, the pro driver explained, is that the vehicle stability and traction control systems are designed to sense when wheels are losing traction--say on wet surfaces, or when going through a hard turn--and automatically apply brakes to those wheels. This means, in theory, that the car will stay under control, even under extreme conditions.
Of course, any extreme situation may vary, and my experience by no means guarantees safety in any other circumstances. But I admit, I was impressed. There's no doubt that when I was driving the Lexus with all-wheel drive and the traction and vehicle stability control systems engaged, it felt almost totally stable, even as we rounded the very tight curve. The beeping sound indicated the system was helping out, and that was actually reassuring--it felt good knowing that this technology was helping to keep the car solid while it was undergoing something that I suspect might have ended up flipping my own nine-year-old Subaru.
Though Toyota went through its much-publicized PR nightmare involving out-of-control acceleration, it's unlikely that such a problem is going to happen again any time soon. And with Lexus, I don't know of any cases where it happened. Still, being a Toyota brand, it's clear that the company wants people to know that even if a mat should get stuck under the accelerator, or something else might cause the throttle to get stuck, the Lexus safety systems are there to take over.
And that's just what happened. Even with my foot all the way to the floor--it actually took me three tries before I could overcome some subconscious tick that made me pull back a bit on the gas--hitting the brake all the way governed the situation. There was a brief, perhaps half-second, pause while the car waits to see if, yes, you really do want to stop, or that you are intentionally pounding the gas (as evidenced by no lessening of pressure on the brake or the accelerator), and then, as I mentioned above, the car came quickly to a stop.
The point, it was clear, is that this Lexus had a system in place that would override in the very unlikely event of uncontrolled acceleration. And that, obviously, is intended to calm anyone down who might worry that a Lexus, as a Toyota brand, might suffer from the same malady that got so much attention in recent months.
The last driving test I got to do was one that showcased what good antilock brakes can do.
Here, we again tested two cars--one with ABS and one without. The goal: accelerate full-force down a straight track and then hit the brakes and turn the wheel to avoid hitting a bunch of cones at the end. Then we'd go again, this time trying to steer into an instant lane change, even with the brakes on full (see video below).
In the Lexus with no ABS, the performance was unimpressive, as expected. The wheels locked up upon jamming on the brakes, and while I managed not to hit the cones, the car didn't offer any control at all. Similarly, while trying the drastic lane change, there was no response: the car just slid to a loud halt.
In the ABS-enabled Lexus, however, the story was very different. I slammed on the gas, and then, at the appointed spot, I hit the brakes and turned the wheel. The car avoided the cones and went gently into the turn at the end of the track. It handled the lane-change demo with equal aplomb. I went full throttle, and then hit the brakes and flipped the wheel to the right, and indeed, no problems at all as the car swerved, under control, into the next lane.
As my pro driver for this exercise put it, slamming on the brakes in a car with no ABS is like pulling the rudder out of the water in a boat: all control mechanisms are gone. But with the ABS enabled, it felt very much like the car was under control, even as I decelerated quickly and forcefully.
After going through these three demonstrations, I came away with a few impressions. The first was that these pro drivers really knew the cars and what they were capable of.
More to the point, however, I was both impressed and not all that surprised at what we experienced. Yet it was comforting to know that cars like these have features that probably do help a lot of Lexus drivers avoid collisions in some of the unexpected extreme situations that arise when driving. After all, you never know when you're going to hit a bit of black ice, slippery gravel, or when you need to dart out of a lane because something is suddenly in front of you.
As I said above, these types of features can be found in other companies' cars, so the Lexus technology is by no means unique. But since it was Lexus that put me in a position to test them out, I have to give them props for adding them to their vehicles and helping, just a little, keep us all safe on the roads.