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Subaru Forester (Subaru)
Subaru Forester (Subaru)

Semi-autonomous cars

The road to self-driving cars is filled with many driver aids Add to ...

The world is not a car commercial. There are few traffic-free roads, not every day is sunny, and much of our driving lives are spent on roads just like this interstate: flat, boring and straight. Never mind the fun aspects of driving, won’t anyone save us from the crushing, mundane tasks of life behind the wheel?

If you can afford a Tesla Model S with the latest updates, or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class with the driver-assistance package, then good news: your car will. While the fully autonomous car is some unknown ways off – depending more on the legislation than the technology – the semi-autonomous car is already ready for your driveway. That is, assuming you’re ready to plonk down north of $100,000.

However, while the cutting-edge tech is mostly found in the more expensive luxury cars, many of those same features are starting to crop up as options on cars that are closer within reach for most Canadians. This Honda Civic sedan I’m driving, for instance, is already the most popular passenger car in Canada, loved by many for its thrifty nature. Now it gets even better thanks to a suite of driver aids that are nearly as complete as that wafting Mercedes.

Or perhaps you’re in the mood for something a little more adventuresome, with the capability to handle both a little light off-roading and the horrible traffic en route to cottage country. That’ll be the new Forester then, equipped with Subaru’s camera-based Eyesight safety system.

Both the Honda and the Subaru systems offer many of the same features. From a convenience standpoint, the automatic cruise control is probably the amenity you’ll use most.

Simply set a speed and a distance from the car you’re following, and there’s no need to adjust your speed as traffic ebbs and flows. For longer road trips, it’s a real boon.

As of the 2017 model year, Eyesight also matches Honda’s technology with a lane-keeping assist technology. Lane keeping and lane departure are slightly different: the former applies a mild correction to the steering to keep you in your lane, whereas the latter just beeps to warn you if you’re pulling a Weavin’ Steven.

On the road, with automatic cruise control activated, the Honda’s lane-keeping system was slightly more accurate than the Subaru’s. The little car ate up hours of interstate, requiring only small inputs from the driver. It was so competent, I began having concerns about being lulled into a false sense of complacency.

The Forester, which I drove on the long straight prairie roads outside Calgary, was not so seamless. Once or twice it got into a situation where it would oscillate slowly between the lines, never finding a just-right position between them. Again, both of these systems are driver assists, not a replacement for an attentive driver.

There are also some physical differences in how the two systems work that should be of consideration to Canadians. Subaru’s dual-camera system works well, but requires clear road ahead to operate perfectly. The Honda system uses a camera and a millimetre-wave radar, so it’s more resistant to fog and snow. Not that you should be using your cruise control in poor weather conditions.

However, when the weather gets bad, you want your car’s safety systems to be capable of stepping in to help out. Both the Honda and the Subaru have euphemistically named crash-reduction systems. While you may hear sales patter about crash avoidance, the marketing teams are usually careful not to over-promise on what these systems are capable of doing.

In the case of the Subaru, the car is capable of helping you avoid a fender-bender in a couple of ways. It will first sense if you’re approaching an object too quickly and alert you. If you fail to react, it can apply the brakes to a complete stop; if you do apply the brakes but not with sufficient force, the Subaru can brake up to maximum force. It can also stop the car when reversing, to prevent you from running into an object you overlooked.

For drivers trying to process multiple inputs in traffic, the Subaru can also cut throttle if it detects a movable object in front of you. An example: you’re turning right and the car ahead of you moves off; you glance to the left to check for oncoming traffic just as the car ahead of you decides to stop for no reason. Expensive scratch to the paint? Nope – your Subaru covered for you.

Honda’s technology offers similar protection for forward crashes, but doesn’t have Subaru’s reverse protection. The Subaru also has a slight edge with its blind-spot monitoring on both sides, as Honda gives you only a right-side camera in most applications. Further, the Subaru also has a lead vehicle start alert, which beeps if the car ahead moves off and you’re still sitting there.

There’s only one reason for having that last feature, and it’s because you were checking your text messages at a light, just as you weren’t supposed to. However, that’s the thing about the increasing amount of driving assists. While the ideal situation would be a well-trained driving population who obeyed every law and had 20/20 vision and didn’t age, the world isn’t like that.

Even if you are an excellent driver, be glad that driving assistance systems are getting better. You might not need them, but you may need everybody around to have their car ready to step in and hit the brakes when needed.

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