Monday, September 16, 2002

Fly By Wire Isn't All It Is Cracked Up To Be

Like a lot of newer sports cars, my 2000 Corvette has something called "Active Handling." This is an attempt to protect overly rambunctious drivers from their own stupidity. Analogous to way that traction control senses a spinning wheel and reduces power to restore traction, Active Handling (which is probably trademarked, for all I know) senses when you have done something stupid with the steering wheel, and corrects.

There are times that traction control is a nuisance--when you need to spin the wheels to remove enough snow to get down to pavement. That's part of why you can turn traction control off with a switch. Another nuisance of traction control is that at slow speeds it tends operate a bit earlier than you are really losing traction. This means that certain sorts of power oversteer techniques don't work. Even my 2000 Chevrolet Impala had enough power that on completely dry and clean windy roads, I would sometimes turn off traction control so that I could make more use of gearing to control my attitude through sharp turns.

Active Handling has a disable switch as well, and I am beginning to wonder if I might want it off a bit more often. Sometimes Active Handling works quite well. I was making a left turn the other day, and used perhaps a bit more throttle than was absolutely necessary. The car saw the oversteer condition beginning to develop, and so did a steering adjustment and throttle reduction. Not only could I feel the computer taking control away from me, but so could my wife--it was that noticeable. I can't claim that the net result was bad. I wasn't out of control of the car before, nor was I about to spin it, but I can see why the computer, doing its very best impression of an overprotective Big Government Liberal, might have thought differently.

Today, however, I was engaged in what I considered a perfectly reasonable turn, and I did not like the results. I was turning left onto a busy four lane street out of a driveway. I was giving it a bit of gas before the traffic some distance away to my left became an issue. There was traffic coming in both directions, at about 50 mph, and it was important to either get out there now, or wait a very long time for another break in the traffic. (Or, I suppose, turn right, and go the long way around.)

So I put my foot on the gas, not very deeply--perhaps 1/3 of the way to the floor--while turning left. Suddenly my rear tires are breaking loose (perhaps because of dirt on the paved driveway), but Active Handling took over, eased up on the throttle, and overcorrected the steering, slamming my head into the bottom of the roof panel edge. I wasn't hurt, but I was certainly surprised. I did not end up in the lane I expected (number 1 going to my left) but in the number 2 lane going to my left.

In this case, that wasn't a problem, and if there had been traffic close enough for that to have been a possibility, I would not have attempted this left turn. Still, I don't like cars second guessing me this aggressively, and with this little reason.

I only wish that there was a button for disabling Mother Hen Government Mode when it was likely to become this much of a nuisance.

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