Hils at Large – Dumb And Even Dumber

JulyHilsFaceThe future of Electronic Driving Aids: a truly marvellous development or a step too far in dumbing down off-road driving skills? Guess which way Hils veers!

Over the last two months our man Down Under, Robert Pepper, has brought you features on the latest in Electronic Driving Aids (EDAs), specifically for the new Ford Ranger, and what the future holds for the 4×4 enthusiast.

His feature this month (April 2012 – see page 62) may make you think ‘this is just too way out and surely can’t be happening anytime soon’. Well, think again and take note, because this is what is being developed right now, according to Mr P. Vehicles, and particularly 4x4s, are going to have a real mind of their own and our input, as the driver, is becoming less and less significant.

For those of us who enjoy off-roading and the challenges it brings, the whole experience will become so clinical that, in my humble opinion, will it be worth bothering to take your over-electronicised (if that is the right word to make up) 4×4 off the tarmac at all?!
Now, I’m not going to get all grumpy and old fashioned and ‘bah humbug’ the whole EDA issue – far from it. I embrace modern technology and am a very impressed fan of Land Rover’s Terrain Response, Toyota’s Multi Terrain Select and Jeep’s Selec Terrain and now Ford’s latest wizardry. Already great off-roaders have become even more sophisticated and can now reach parts that we could only perhaps dream of once upon a time. But what I really do have an issue with is that these systems do not teach people to ‘drive’ off-road. And it’s going to get worse.


I learnt in a Suzuki SJ410 with a four-speed manual gearbox and good old sturdy and clunking transfer lever that locked in just lovely – you knew it was there and you trusted it. I’m not saying I don’t have faith in these electronic systems, but electronics go wrong as well and what if they do so in the middle of the desert or on top of a mountain or glacier? There’s no dealership on hand up there to plug you in and diagnose the problem.

As for the ‘Defender’ DC100 concept: if it does become anywhere near a decent utility vehicle for rescue and emergency services and those tackling difficult terrain all over the world, what happens if that system fails in the middle of nowhere when, say, the Red Cross is trying to save a life?

That is a problem that needs to be addressed – perhaps such users will have to carry sophisticated computer equipment and the basics of roadside repair, whatever that could possibly mean.

But what I am even more seriously concerned about here is with the ability to drive off-road and understand what is going on underneath your tyres and bonnet. When I learnt to drive you could feel every nuance of the wheels and suspension; you learnt to assess the terrain in front of you and how to deal with it. You could feel the abilities of your engine and gearbox, and know exactly what you can and can’t do with your 4×4. Plonking a novice into a Range Rover or Discovery 4 or new Toyota Land Cruiser or Jeep Grand Cherokee teaches them nothing about what actually is happening under their cosseted, leather-wrapped backsides.

Any decent and properly qualified off-road driving instructor should, of course, be telling you what is going on, but you just can’t feel it. Suspension systems are so sophisticated, and computers control everything to suit the conditions so what on earth do you learn? A big part of the fun of off-road driving is assessing just how to drive that side slope correctly and get up that steep descent in the right gear and with careful control of the throttle, feeling the suspension creaking and straining. Modern vehicles just take over and you might as well walk up alongside your mobile computer!

With the suggestion that 4x4s will soon be assessing the terrain ahead with a drone, rather than reacting to it as happens at present, why would there be any enjoyment whatsoever in doing that? Jumping out and having a little chat/argument with your mates about what line to take and gear selection etc is all part of the fun. Okay, so drones may well be ideal for emergency services who perhaps need to get somewhere difficult as soon as possible but, for the recreational driver, you might as well sit in your armchair and play an off-roading computer game for all the fun you get out of it?

Another thing that I really worry about is the spooky Parking Aid. The Evoque freaked us out on the recent 4×4 of The Year test, taking control, it was like it was possessed, and it means that people won’t improve their parking and have no idea how to manoeuvre a vehicle properly; and, again, supposing it fails during a tricky car parking situation? Now that must be a bad thing…

Makes you think about the future of driving lessons and the test as well doesn’t it? Perhaps the ’L’ plate will just signify a ‘driver’ who hasn’t quite got their seating position totally comfy yet…?

Anyone got an old SJ for sale?!


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