x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Air Bag: Runaway SUV is as out of control as rumours surrounding it

Is a speeding SUV stuck in cruise control on the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain motorway the latest symptom of computers that govern new vehicles taking on a life of their own?

This sounds like any motorists' horror story: you get in your car and climb up to speed on a major motorway, only to find that you can't stop or slow down as your car isn't responding; it's taken on a mind of its own.

This very scenario happened this past week to a UAE man when his SUV wouldn't disengage from cruise control at 160kph along the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain motorway. With frantic phone calls to emergency services, the police were called in to clear traffic ahead of the car and allow it some room. Then, under police instruction, the driver eventually brought the car to a halt using the handbrake, the end of what I'm sure was a terrifying ride.

But hang on, something doesn't sound right here. Cars don't simply take over control and drive themselves. As much as we'd like to blame these new computers that every car has nowadays - those mysterious black boxes that mastermind all the systems on a vehicle, from fuel management to air conditioning - they've not once suddenly taken on a life of their own. Or have they?

A couple of years ago, Toyota endured a rash of accusations (and devastatingly bad publicity) concerning its Prius hybrid. Allegedly, a handful of drivers experienced sudden, unintended acceleration while driving, causing traffic accidents and, in some cases, fatalities. While many people pointed the finger at simple floor mats hitting the accelerator (and, indeed, Toyota changed its mats), the electronically actuated throttle fell under heavy suspicion; the cause of the problem was never fully diagnosed.

But this recent case in the UAE isn't the same - the 4x4 didn't accelerate on its own, the driver admitted to setting the cruise control at 160kph, where it stayed. It just didn't slow down.

In just about any case when a car won't slow down for any reason, such as a stuck throttle, the best thing to do is shift it into neutral (that's why the gear selector can just be bumped into this gear, for emergency situations) and steer off to the side of the road, braking normally - don't worry about that roaring engine, your safety is worth more than the cost of replacing it. If that doesn't work, turn the key off, but remember that the steering will lock, so keep it on a straight stretch. Also, the brakes won't have power boost, so they'll need a good shove with your foot.

It sounds like, from this story, that these options didn't work, and that's the strange part. Police have confirmed the car had been modified for speed, and the danger here is that, if the computer system was changed to handle the performance additions, something just didn't mesh together with the cruise control's functions. If that's true, then the car must be stripped down to find the problem; if it is the performance parts, then who knows how many cars out on our roads are ticking time bombs with the same parts?

And if it wasn't the modifications at fault, then there's an even bigger problem: a production car, available to the public on a showroom floor, with a potentially fatal flaw. Whatever the reason, it must be found. The speculation and rumours may run rampant, but they won't save lives.

One final thought on the subject: the driver admitted to setting his cruise at 160kph, 20kph above the speed limit. He apparently wasn't wearing his seat belt as well and had to be told by police over the phone to buckle up in case of a crash; why wasn't he charged for either offence?