It was a foggy day. Not so foggy that you needed to stay home, but one of those days where visibility was kind of OK. It was quite bright, but traveling at speed you really needed lights on. Ten years ago this would not have been a problem. Most people see the need for lights in foggy conditions, some even put fog lights on way before it is actually necessary. Last week it was a problem.
Many newer model cars now have automatic lights. The car turns the lights on as it gets dark, and off again in daylight. This is great, it catches the rare occasion where you leave a fuel station in a town at night and forget to put your lights back on, it also makes sure that you have lights on as the daylight light fades. The sensor detects ambient light and takes away one more responsibility from the person behind the wheel. The problem comes when you encounter daytime fog. The sensors detect sufficient ambient light to settle on ‘day’ and don’t trigger the headlights.
Have you noticed the fashion is for grey, silver, or other muted colour paint in the last few years. That doesn’t stand out in fog either.
So, my trip last week. I had the luxury of being a passenger, in a car with automatic headlights being driven by someone who knew to turn the lights on manually. This gave me time to observe. I didn’t take notes, but from some rough counting there were approximately one in ten cars unlit. Looking at the badges, these were largely Mercedes and Audi, with a scattering of VW and a few of other makes. Of those that I initially thought were lit, many had only the Daytime Running Lights, giving them some front lighting, but no rear lights. This may explain the lack of some brands in my ‘survey’ as I didn’t check the rear of all cars as we passed.
At what point does the automotive industry become liable? Cars are driven by people who don’t understand the technical limitations of the driver aids, and the convenience becomes familiar to the point that people don’t even think to check up on how the car is behaving. As the driver is given less and less to do, they depend upon assumed capabilities. The driver workload is decreased under almost all conditions, and that is a good thing, as it allows for more attention to be given to building a picture of the surrounding traffic and potential hazards. Cars have increasing autonomy, and drivers are, in some cases, taking much less responsibility, and have a much lower understanding of the machine that they are operating.
Looking at the whole system, the answer could be found in areas such as driver training, policing, awareness campaigns, or yet more sensors to identify more subtle conditions. Whatever the answer, the game of ‘Yellow Car’ is getting much harder. For those unfamiliar with this classic, the rules are explained here.