Give me a brake…

I’ve never really trusted new technology – or old technology, for that matter.

I’m still weighing the overall risks of purchasing a DVD player. And a microwave oven. And an iPod…

New automotive technology always makes me nervous.

Take the latest safety breakthrough from German automaker Mercedes-Benz. According to a recent report in Car and Driver magazine, Mercedes will be offering self-braking brakes in its new luxury (read $100,000-plus) CL model line.

The new braking system, Car and Driver reports, is designed to help avoid collisions by braking for you when you motor obliviously up on objects that could bend your hood ornament.

The “Pre-Safe” brake system, automotive writers explain, “has the ability to detect or anticipate if a collision is imminent.” The system then initiates both audible and visual warnings to alert the driver to potential problems. If the happy-go-lucky motorist continues to ignore the disaster drawing ever nearer, the car begins braking on its own.


Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought that people should drive cars, not the other way around.

God gave us feet so we could apply our own brakes when we come upon an immovable object or an unexpected herd of Nubian goats. It’s an established scientific fact that people with genetically short attention spans invariably have larger feet to cope with just such emergencies.

At first glance, the concept of self-braking autos seems like a great idea. But how many cars have you had that functioned perfectly all the time, regardless of how much money you paid for them?

My guess would be zero.

Sooner or later, every car develops some quirks – the more complicated the car, the more exasperating the quirk. Now think of quirky self-braking brake systems.

A speck of dust, an unexpected electrical surge, perhaps a bit of moisture, and your car is going to be stopping whenever it pleases for whatever it pleases – or nothing at all.

One minute you’re motoring down life’s highway without a care in the world and the next you’re coming to a very unexpected halt because your state-of-the-art auto has locked onto a menacing electronic hallucination dead ahead.

“…Heffalump, 750 yards and closing. Heffalump, 500 yards and closing. Heffalump, 250 yards and closing. Initiate emergency braking protocol…”

This is, of course, an extremely hypothetical situation. Expensive German motorcars hardly ever hallucinate Heffalumps.

Then, again, it only takes one afternoon of unanticipated braking to ruin your whole day.

For everyone out there who simply burns to spend $100,000 on a luxury automobile, I’d recommend purchasing a 1998 Cadillac and using the rest of your money to hire a chauffeur to drive it for you. That way, if your driver insists on braking every time a leaf blows across the roadway or a tufted titmouse hops into your path, you can at least have the satisfaction of reaching forward and slapping him one upside the head…

Originally published October 8, 2006