I flew close under a stone bridge on the Merritt Parkway, the narrow and twisty tree-lined pathway connecting Connecticut to New York. Looking down at the speedometer I saw I was just beneath the century mark. At the same time, the sign for my exist flashed by, close on the right. I stepped gently on the brakes, moved into the exit lane, and popped on the high beams.
EXIT: 15 MPH.
At one hundred fifty feet a second, the sign was coming up fast. There was only one thing to do. I stood on the brakes. Hard. There was a clatter behind me, as the contents of the backseat relocated to the floor. However, the disruption was brief as the stereo adjusted itself to suppress the additional noise.
As the sign swelled in the headlights, I released the brakes and turned the wheel in one smooth motion. That’s where most drivers go wrong – they stay on the brakes, and go straight off the road. These modern cars have wonderful stability control and drive by wire electronics. It’s all designed to give top priority to straight line braking. So you’ve got a choice: brake hard, or turn hard. But you can’t do both at the limit. Not with electronics. Braking will always win, and you will exit the road, nose first.
With my foot off the brake the stability control took over. The DSC sensed the rotation of the car and the slip of the wheels. It responded by braking individual wheels faster then I could blink, and drifting the car perfectly around the corner. The drift burned off the excess speed, and I exited the turn at a much more moderate rate of progression.
Just let the electronics do its job. That's what they tell us, at service school.
As that happened, the stereo calmly adjusted its volume, and Lou Rawls sang smoothly over the cacophony of tires on pavement. There was no sign that a disaster had just been avoided. Indeed – had you asked – I’d have denied the whole thing, saying that was how I do that turn every time.
The STOP sign flashed by, as I slowed to the speed limit – or something reasonably close – and opened my window. Lou Rawls was just leaving Chicago, and the Girl from Ipanema was headed our way.
Cars sure have come a long way, in the four decades I’ve been driving.
But there’s still a place for a ’59 Cadillac, a ’63 Lincoln, or a 65 GTO Tri Power. Even if the new BMW or Mercedes does have better stereo and cornering. There’s a reason we won World War II, and it’s got nothing to do with electronics.