They say self-driving cars are almost upon us, and for many Canadians, they can’t come soon enough. Autonomous driving (AD) is a godsend if you view driving as a necessary evil, a chore to be undertaken with the bare minimum effort necessary to arrive alive.
AD also promises to benefit society, ushering in a nirvana of free-flowing traffic, reduced emissions and zero crashes. We just need to take the humans out of the equation.
On the other hand, some of us view autonomous cars not as a promise but as a threat. For us, driving is not just a means to an end. It’s an activity we actually enjoy, a skill to be consciously practiced and perfected. And we value everything that makes a car fun to drive – eager engine, responsive steering and a slick shifter.
In my life I’ve owned 20 cars, and all of them – even our VW camper – had manual transmission. My son learned to drive on a stick and scorns any car that doesn’t have it. He gets that from me.
Yet here’s the thing: I love cruise control. Cruise control should be standard on every vehicle, and it should be mandatory to use it.
Cruise control has been around for decades – heck, it’s arguably the original autonomous driving technology. I use it wherever possible, for reasons that are purely selfish. But many of AD’s broader societal benefits could be achieved today if only more people used the cruise control they already have.
A common excuse for not using cruise is that the feeling you’re surrendering control. In which case, please enlighten me: if you so value being “in control,” why are you so excruciatingly bad at it?
Those of us who do use cruise become maddeningly aware of all those who don’t. On multi-lane highways we get trapped in a cycle of repeatedly passing and then being re-passed by the same vehicle. Cars passing in the left lane inexplicably slow down alongside and block you in. On two-lane roads, we’re forced to repeatedly re-adjust our speed while stuck behind denizens of the “obliviati” whose speed randomly rises and falls for no good reason.
I once got a speeding ticket that was entirely the fault of another driver not using cruise control. They sped up while I was passing in the left lane. I accelerated briefly to finish my pass and move back into the right lane. In those few seconds I went through a speed trap.
On any given road, I decide on the appropriate speed, and if traffic allows, I prod the cruise button. I nearly always drive above the speed limit (I live in Ontario, land of the most laughably low speed limits on the planet) but still low enough to fly under the radar.
Now I’m free to focus on the road and the traffic. No need to keep checking my speedometer or scan for speed traps. Meanwhile, I can rest my right foot closer to the brake pedal for quicker reaction in an emergency and wiggle it around to avoid cramps.
And all this while probably consuming less fuel. Says Natural Resources Canada, “Tests have shown that varying your speed up and down between 75 and 85 km per hour every 18 seconds can increase your fuel use by 20 per cent.”
But I’m also making your life better by helping the traffic flow more smoothly. At least, I would be, if my efforts weren’t undone by all the unenlightened drivers not using cruise control. Yes, I know, some vehicles don’t have it, but not many. And with the growing prevalence of adaptive cruise control on newer vehicles, there’s even less reason not to use it.
When traffic density gets beyond a certain point, the failure of so many drivers to pick a speed and stick to it isn’t just annoying, it actually causes unnecessary congestion.
It’s all a function of the accordion effect – what Wikipedia describes as “fluctuations in speed (that) propagate backwards and typically get bigger and bigger further down the line, decreasing the throughput of road traffic.”
Mathematicians have even developed models to illustrate how one vehicle slowing down can set off an escalating chain reaction that brings traffic to a complete standstill many kilometres behind.
That’s not even the worst of it. When traffic suddenly stops unexpectedly, bumpers can and do get bashed. At the very least, traffic flow is now trashed. At worst, people may be hurt. And all too often, the cause is one driver far ahead who randomly slowed down for no reason.
So please, do us all a favour. If your vehicle has cruise, use it. Before I completely lose it.
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