Why on earth do people object to making cars easier to drive?

Posted on September 18th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Economy,Handling by Julian Edgar

I’ll let you into a secret.

I think it quite bizarre, but some people actually believe that the greater the driver skill needed to operate a car, the better the car must be.

The corollary of this is that is if a modification makes it easier to get more out of a car, the modification must be bad.

Now put this way you can see why I called the notion bizarre. But in the time I’ve been writing about car modifications, I’ve come across it quite a few times.

Here are just two examples.

When I owned a near-new R32 GTR Skyline, I was quite unimpressed with its handling. Basically, the car was set up for a lot of power oversteer, the active four wheel drive system reducing the torque being fed to the front wheels as the cornering became stronger. (For the front wheels to start doing anything, the car had to be well and truly sideways, the back wheels spinning faster than the fronts.)

Despite then universal disagreement, I regarded (and continue to regard) this approach as flawed for a road car.

With some expert help, I developed an electronic system that gave driver control over the way the all-wheel drive system worked. (The system is detailed here.) The driver could turn a knob and have behaviour that varied from standard right through to far more front torque split. The system was still active, but the massive oversteer could be dialled-out with ease. You could even change the setting from corner to corner.

On any public road the car was faster, more stable and much safer. It was also vastly easier to drive quickly.

And it’s the latter point that seemed to get up people’s noses. The GT-R was supposed to oversteer everywhere. It had so much power; it was the world’s best-handling car. Clearly, I wasn’t much of a driver if I couldn’t cope with its standard handling traits.

Of course the punchline is that subsequent iterations of this chassis moved more and more towards the style of torque split that I had created through the modification. And the other thing I always found amusing was that when aftermarket torque controllers became widespread and people started to fit them, I never heard of anyone reverting back to the standard R32 GTR system…

And now to a current example. As we covered here, earlier this year I developed a modification that causes the Honda Insight to stay longer in lean cruise. Basically, the mod replicates a very smooth driver – sudden throttle movements are seen by the ECU as smooth ones. (The actual throttle blade moves as it did before.)

The result is that the Honda’s incredibly lean cruise mixtures of about 25:1 are maintained for longer periods than they would typically be in operation with a normal driver. But if the driver has sufficient skill and is prepared to put in the extra work, the same affect can be gained without the modification.

So we’re talking about Insight drivers who have carefully developed techniques for holding a rigid right foot, who even talk about Velcro’ing their right foot to the carpet so that it is easier to hold it in the one spot, keeping the car in lean cruise mode.

Now I regard that as about as silly as R32 GTR owners who believe that opposite-lock power oversteering out of every corner is the way cars should be driven.

But because such an approach takes more driver effort and skill, again there are people who actually defend the ‘rigid right foot’ technique as being much more worthy than a modification that allows normal people to experience the same affect – without Velcro’ing their foot in place…

As far as I am concerned, the lower the skill level required to get good results from a car, the better. Simply, that way more people will have more success more of the time.

So next time you see someone condemning a modification because it makes a car easier to drive well, ask yourself – what on earth are these people complaining about?

32 Responses to 'Why on earth do people object to making cars easier to drive?'

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  1. Ben said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 8:49 am

    I think they are complaining not because it makes it easier, but because they fear that they will look stupid because more people can do the same thing with less effort.

    Say one of the mod-knockers can do Insane Mountain Range in 10 minutes. Also say that you came along and did the range in 9 minutes 30, despite your skill being slightly inferior (just an example…), thanks to your torque split controller. Rather than thinking “oh that’s cool, I must get one of them”, they may take it as an attack on their manhood that someone can beat them with apparent ease. The fact that they might implement the modification and go even faster than you hasn’t occured to them yet, and probably won’t for a long time, or at least until their favourite race driver / aftermarket supplier endorses it. Only then is it ok to use…

    Imagine if they raced professionally, with this anti-innovation mindset their heads are perfectly designed to keep them at the back of the field.

  2. BG said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 10:15 am

    I guess that’s one side to take, and yes it makes sense. But I think there’s another take on the topic. If you don’t feel the car is fundamentally flawed, often these difficulties or idiosyncracies can make driving more engaging and enjoyable. Most new cars would be considered easier and more relaxing to drive. Which is great for the majority of their use. But if you can’t deal with going to all that effort only to be passed by another car then it would make sense to get something more suitable.
    And I think there’s another downside to the ‘ease of driving’ thing. Cars where you’re so disengaged from driving make it easy to be more distracted.. and I reckon when I’m driving a good car, one that demands my attention, I drive well also. Vehicles that you drive without needing much thought create poor and inattentive driving..

  3. Richard said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Nostalgia – seems to run some people’s live with regards to cars.

    Is driving a car that darts off line when it hits a mid corner bump really all that enjoyable just because you have to do constant corrections? Or one that requires illogical use of the throttle because the turbo tech is so old the poor thing has heaps of lag?

    In just about any other realm of sports involving speed and technique there is a constant forward movement in technology that makes it at once more exciting and more easily accessible!

  4. milesinfront said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Considering how many new cars have electronically controlled throttles (including common rail diesels) I’m surprised that throttle dampening isn’t more common. For example:- the computer could calculate that the driver appears to want to cruise at 103km/h. So the ECU holds the vehicle at 103km/h unless a quick change in throttle position is recorded OR the throttle position moves more than +/- 10%.

    Anyone with cruise control will notice how people’s cruising speeds vary SO dramatically….

  5. Michael Stanley said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    I bought a Honda Jazz with an automatic gearbox, a CVT (constant velocity gearbox) that provides a very smooth transmission of power with no jerkiness of gear changes. Its not only smooth, but quiet cause it keeps revs to a minimum at cruise and helps achieve fantastic fuel economy. If I want to change “gears”, I can go into a manual mode. So why does the new model revert to a conventional 5 speed box? Didn’t people understand the CVT, or did they miss the aural buzz of gear changes and seeing the tachometer rise and fall? There is no doubt Honda can make a fine conventional automatic, but in my book, the CVT is a great box and its advantages and better, yes better fuel economy far outweigh any advantages of the new conventional box.

  6. Tom said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    “Engaging” and “easy to drive” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It depends on what you are modifying.

    Julian makes a good point: that people turn their noses up at mods that make cars faster but require less sweat and sphincter puckering from the driver.

    I say that makes sense. Especially on public roads.

  7. Ken Lloyd said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I find the same strange attitude cropping up when AWD cars are compared to 2WD. “Expert” drivers tend to look down on AWD, saying that they can’t go round corners sideways with clouds of tyre smoke, therefore AWD is “not fun”!!!

    As just an ordinary driver for the last 45 years, the AWD Magna I now drive is the best driving machine I’ve ever had. And yes, I like driving for enjoyment, not just a dull A to B exercise.

  8. Ben G said,

    on September 18th, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    As the roads become more congested and heavily-policed, surely enthusiastic drivers should be pushing for cars which are more fun to drive at sane speeds? Constant development of technologies which diminish the sensation of speed and allow poor drivers to drive faster surely reduce the pleasure of driving at legal speeds?

  9. Orlando F said,

    on September 22nd, 2008 at 11:45 am

    I’m sorry, but when I get into my vehicle I get in it to drive it, not to have the vehicle drive me. I love technology and I’m always excited when something new comes out, but I like my cars with less acronyms. No TCS, ABS, ASM. TSM, TSX, WWF 🙂 A car is much more enjoyable to drive when you’re in full control. Leave the acronyms for the soccer moms.

  10. Julian Edgar said,

    on September 22nd, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Yep, people just completely lost the ability to drive when bloody synchromesh was introduced. If you can’t drive a crash box, you shouldn’t be on the road. After all, how can you have full control when you have synchros doing the work for you?

  11. Julian Edgar said,

    on September 22nd, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    And brakes! Well, we had REAL drivers when all brakes were operated with cables. Hydraulic brakes – baaaah! They’re for people who can’t drive. When you could feel that a cable brake was about to lock-up – and then compensate for it – you could call yourself a real driver… Enjoyment? Gawd, those were the days…

  12. George B. said,

    on September 23rd, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    I recall on a business trip to Canada years ago renting a entry-level economy car – a Pontiac – which had “automatic” daytime running lights / headlights. I was thrilled; this one chore I would no longer need to worry about. Running lights were on in the daytime, in a tunnel the headlights come on as needed and of course, at night. More important they turned off on their own shortly after leaving the vehicle; no more dead batteries. Now this “feature” is quite common, but at the time and at the price point, it was really something having the car handle the low-level functions allowing the driver to focus on job one.

  13. Ray Kretschmann said,

    on September 24th, 2008 at 2:10 am

    Yes Julian, I drive a vintage car that weighs 1 ton with mechanical drum brakes, it’s sphincter tightening fun! I also drove GMC army trucks with “crash boxes”, the feeling of achievement in getting six in a row without a crash is great, but the concentration in doing so can’t have helped general driving.

  14. doctorpat said,

    on September 24th, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Isn’t this a bit like finding a human powered vehicle more exciting to drive than a petrol car, because at a slow (legal) speed you actually have to do something?

  15. Robbie B said,

    on September 25th, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I too must be a REAL driver, since I have a vintage car with mechanical rear only brakes, no power steering, and crash gears. Driving in traffic at under 60kph is one of the most heart stopping experiences of all. Stuff driving fast, just take some of the brakes off your modern car and get some cheap thrills!

  16. Jon said,

    on September 26th, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Beyond a certain point I dislike the effects of the advance of technology on driving. Why?
    For me the pleasure of driving comes not from travelling quickly or from the vehicle, but from developing and and using skills and feeling that the quality of my driving is reflected in the quality and quantity of progress made. If there is insufficient difference bewteen the consequences of driving well and driving badly, if I cannot feel the difference that my driving makes – good or bad – then I find much less to derive satisfaction from.
    In a competition situation maybe such technology would remove some obstacles to speed and enable a driver to focus their skills on other aspects, hence improving performance. But day-to-day for most of us on the road the legal and practical (e.g. traffic congestion) restrictions have already removed most of the opportunity to employ skillful driving in a way that affects progress, so the advance of technology feels like a threat to what remains.

  17. Ford Man said,

    on September 26th, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Unfortunately easier often means less driver involvement.

    Julian, what do you think of automatic transmissions?


  18. Julian Edgar said,

    on September 27th, 2008 at 6:44 am

    Personally, it doesn’t worry me much if a car is a manual or auto. Have owned many examples of both.

  19. Wave said,

    on September 28th, 2008 at 2:12 am

    Whilst this may be due to some kind of unwritten convention I have learned from the car industry (have you tried ordering a manual Commodore Omega?), I much prefer large cars to have automatic transmissions and small cars to be manual, by which I mean that I would never buy an auto hatchback but I expect all but the most sporting Commodores/Falcons to be auto. This seems to be because the torque multiplication effect of a torque converter is most useful in getting a heavy car off the line.

    To get back on topic, I think that the important thing about the use of technology and driver aids in cars is that they don’t detract from driver feedback. For example, power steering is useful as long as it isn’t weightless and still provides good feedback from the wheels, ABS systems must not prevent the driver from feeling where the car’s limits are, etc. Making the task of driving the car easier is good as long as the driver is still fully informed and involved in directing the car. If the driver does not know what the car is doing then it is out of control and therefore dangerous.

  20. Rodger Box said,

    on September 29th, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Are there any after market drive-by-wire electronic throttle kits on the market?
    I am not a fan of the current pendant pedal arrangement which provides no support for the right foot.
    I long for the old style organ pedal.

  21. Julian Edgar said,

    on September 29th, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    Yes there is. But if it’s just the pedal design you don’t like, it should be possible to mechanically modify it while retaining the original electronic transducers, shouldn’t it?

  22. Rodger Box said,

    on September 30th, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Julian – I don’t have a drive-by-wire accelerator.
    Mine is the usual pendant pedal, connected to a throttle cable.
    The problem is that it is located too far away from the side of the footwell where I used to be able to rest my foot in other cars.
    The car’s take off can be a bit jumpy if I can’t take some of the weight off my foot to steady the pressure on the accelerator.

  23. Peter Tawadros said,

    on September 30th, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    Organ pedals are soooooo much better! I’ve only driven a handful of cars with them, and unfortunately all of them have been auto, but immediately you have so much more of an ergonomic position, not to mention organ pedals would be undoubtedly much better for heel-and-toe. My favourite accelerator pedal of all time is the early 90’s BMW 3-series one…love the feel.

  24. Rodger Box said,

    on October 1st, 2008 at 10:29 am

    My idea of fitting a drive-by-wire accelerator is twofold.
    Firstly, I would hope to be able to get an organ type pedal.
    Secondly, I would have it fitted close to the side of the footwell, allowing me to rest my foot againt the side panel.
    Would this be possible?

  25. Julian Edgar said,

    on October 2nd, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Rodger, it would be way too expensive for the outcome – with a new electronic throttle body, electronic pedal transducers and new electronic throttle ECU, perhaps $2500. Better to just mechanically modify the existing pedal or replace it with another from a different car.

  26. Rodger Box said,

    on October 2nd, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Thanks Julian – that is the sort of advice that I was looking for.
    I will look at the mechanical options.
    I may be able to put some sort of pad on the side of the footwell to lessen the gap to the pedal.
    Back to the drawing board!

  27. Dave said,

    on October 2nd, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    It would seem to depend on what you are trying to compare.

    Those complaining about technical aids are obviously looking to compare how you reached the outcome (economy/times etc).

    Those who are using technology to make driving easier/faster are clearly comparing the outcome rather than the method of getting to it.

    Both are completely valid ways of comparing. as long as it is apples and apples there shouldnt be a problem

  28. CamryFan said,

    on October 16th, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    I saw a comment regarding brake locking. It is generally regarded that you can’t fully use ABS to its advantage in a racing application until you learn to use “normal” disk brakes. Explain that away.

  29. chris said,

    on November 12th, 2008 at 11:49 am

    You know, to a certain extend I kind of understand the attitude you’re getting at, but only in a certain way. I remember watching a touge battle between an R35 GT-R and a RE-Amemiya FD3S RX-7 a while back – a far less experienced driver gave the RX a good run for its money. Afterwards he said, “Oh man, I’m as good as [driver name] .. or is it just the GT-R?”. Everyone agreed, it was just the GT-R. Now, I’m all for innovation in motoring. I loves me some ABS, EBD etc, but I have seen a lot of WRX drivers get very very lazy because of their AWD. They develop bad driving habits that the power delivery method lets them get away with, then they jump in a FWD or RWD car and declare them crap, but in reality they just don’t know how to drive it properly. Different driving techniques are required for getting the most out of the different types of drivetrain.

    It all depends how much of the work you want the car to do for you, and how much depends on driver skill. Okay fair enough, you make your points about synchromesh and hydraulic brakes but consider the other end of the equation. You hook your 2015 Z36 400z into the corner in your favourite mountain. The traction control detects wheelspin in the rear left and delivers less power to that wheel. It also detects that you’ve slightly understeered in the front left and the electronically controlled steering adjusts the outside wheel’s angle of attack and increases toe-out on the right to compensate and pull you through the corner. The collision avoidance system detects that the angle of the corner vs current speed and turn rate is insufficient to maintain this line through the corner and mildly applies distributed braking while softening off the throttle.

    The car could well be doing all the driving. Don’t get me wrong, I like advancements in technology that makes things easier. But IMO we need to realise that we are getting closer and closer to cars that can do all the driving for you.

    And I -like- driving.

  30. raj said,

    on January 16th, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Hey, you might as well ride a bike then init? All this nonesense about “Real driving” is just that. NONsense. The other day i saw a young guy in a good-ish car with a manual gear blown away by a woman in a bmw automatic. Thats the REAL problem for so called REAL drivers. They fear technology will even out the playing field and inferior drivers will be able to things that was solely the domain of the “expert” driver in the past. BRING N TECHNOLOGY!

  31. mike said,

    on January 16th, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Who needs full control when the computer is there to do it for you??? Driving made easier by new tech is a good thing. If you want to prove your dubious manhoods by driving fast or meshing gears perfectly, goto the racetrack – why show off on the freeway?

  32. BG said,

    on January 16th, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    OK in this new age of easy to drive cars I think we must think of new and exciting challenges to engage in. Such as seeing if you can balance you lunch on tha dashboard all the way to work. Or making sure your waterbottle or mobile phone don’t slide off the passenger seat.
    Really, no one on this site has mentioned the fundamental performance limitations of many cars: that the groceries slide off the seat at about 0.5g (I must calibrate this). You must realise it takes some precision to carefully keep your bag of groceries as close to the edge of it’s ‘G-G’ curve as possible. Better watch out if they oversteer..