The prospect of autopilot in automobiles has been with us for some time, reaching back as far as Jules Verne. But it's quickly gaining currency. This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for instance, General Motors is showing off a self-driving Tahoe, a rudimentary preview of autopilot technologies coming to market, perhaps as soon as 2018, according to company execs.
There are two schools of thought on self-navigation: You may think of them as bottom up and top down.
In the top-down model, vehicles communicate among themselves and with the highway itself (vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure). In the wildesdreams of futurist architect Walter Gropius, these communications would be part of a complex wireless web of mobile computing in the environment, involving radio-frequency identification (RFID), sensors and "ubiquitous architectures" that would rule, and even overrule, the individual car to expedite traffic. The promise of the intelligent highway system is that it could blend personal and public mobility so that vast numbers of cars could be wirelessly coupled nose-to-tail to form glittering monorails rushing into and out of urban centers. The Federal Communications Commission has already set aside digital bandwidth for these purposes.
The other model of autopilot is less authoritarian, more granular and ground up, and is based on systems that are appearing in cars already. One obvious example is smart cruise control, which maintains a preset distance from the car ahead. Some Volvos, BMWs and Audis alert you if there's an object in your blind spot. Honda has a system that, if it senses imminent front-end collision, will brake automatically (this is not yet available in the United States). Lexus has a car that will park itself.
Last year, Infiniti introduced lane-departure warning technology to the U.S. market on the M45 and FX45. The system uses optical sensors to pick up road markings and alert the driver if he or she has crossed a line without signaling.
With the new EX35, Infiniti offers an additional overlay: lane-departure prevention. If the driver opts into the system -- by way of a button on the steering wheel -- the car will automatically nudge itself back into the lane by gently pulsing the brakes, should the sensors and algorithms dictate.
The new EX35 -- a feisty and lovable luxury compact crossover, based on the mechanicals of the G35 sedan -- is not what you might call outside-the-box thinking. More like an FX35 left in the dryer too long.
But it's quietly revolutionary. For the first time in the U.S. market, driver assistance comes not to compensate for the vehicle (anti-lock brakes, stability control) but to compensate for the driver's dereliction of duty. This is quite a threshold to cross.
Cars that act and react autonomously have explicit benefits and implicit dangers. The benefit, obviously, is that technology can compensate for the faulty wetware behind the wheel.
Since about the time of the landmark DeKalb Study (1974) on the efficacy of driver education, it has been an article of faith in the safety establishment that driver training is not cost effective. The march of government-mandated safety equipment -- mandatory stability control, for example -- can be read as an acknowledgment that we can't fix the driver, particularly as the average motorist gets older and more distracted every year.
The danger is twofold: One, that motorists would become lazy and dependent on such assistance, eroding the state of vigilance that driving demands; second, that these systems -- expensive and exotic -- would make safety a matter of class discrimination (middle- and working-class people wouldn't be able to afford safer cars).
Personally, I can't believe we let the people we do operate motor vehicles. I am just astonished at the stupidity and ineptitude, the sheer malevolence, at work in automobiles. We could dramatically restrict who gets a license -- for instance, a psychology screening doesn't seem out of the question -- but there's little political will to attempt such a thing. So, if we're going to allow virtually anyone with a pulse to drive, by all means, let's give cars the power to protect themselves.
Oh, and the EX35? Charming. With the same cut of jib as the FX35/45 -- big snout, raked windshield, wind-winnowed roofline, converging contrails of sheet metal at the rear. Very like a coupe. But calling it a "sport-utility coupe" would make it an SUC and, obviously for marketing reasons, that simply will not do. Infiniti calls it a "personal luxury crossover" instead.
Based on the G sedan and coupe -- although shorter and taller -- the EX35's styling has a bit of a cramp to it. There's a lot of swoop and fold going on in a few feet, ending at the back with a slightly unceremonious hatchback. Still, it's a nice-looking machine. And the inside is just spectacular.
Our test car, a maximally equipped EX35 with the Journey trim package, had a chestnut-brown leather interior and -- stitched over the twin-scallop cockpit design -- it was irresistible. The detailing here -- the switch gear, the woodwork, the perfectly worked seams -- all make for one of the best entry luxury cabins available. The cabin is intimate, which is to say small: sports-car small in front and locked-in-a-steamer-chest small in the rear. Rear-seat legroom is well nigh vestigial.
In most respects, the EX35 handles exactly like a G35 with a roof rack full of blacksmithing tools -- smooth, refined, well sorted, but with a touch more body roll and springiness than the sedan. The 3.5-liter V6 puts out 297 hp and 253 pound-feet of torque (slightly less than it does in the sedan), but the EX35 will pull its guts out through the five-speed automatic. Steering is hefty and affirmative, brakes are strong, driving position excellent.
Dynamically, the only complaint I had is the car's over-active stability control system that just about killed the engine any time it detected any kind of yaw and wheel spin. Feh.
The other trick tech on the EX35 is the around-view monitor (AVM), an advanced version of the backup camera. Using a constellation of cameras around the car, the system creates a composite image, a virtual bird's-eye view that shows the car from overhead. With the AVM engaged, you could parallel park into a teacup if you wanted to.
This is a terrific system, although kind of wasted on the diminutive EX35. The ultimate use is to help moor Infiniti's tugboat-sized QX56. If ever a vehicle needed to park itself.
In itself, the EX35 is fashionably pointless. It offers only a marginal increase in stowage capacity (3 cubic feet more than the sedan) and has next to no back seat -- so much for the utility. It's taller and less glue-footed than the sedan and coupe upon which it is so closely based. So, sports fans, why not a sedan or proper coupe? This is the stylish, niche-segment alternative for those who just can't give up the SUV saddle.
But as a peek into the future, it's brilliant. Infiniti, take the wheel.
2008 Infiniti EX35 Journey RWD Base price: $34,850 Price, as tested: $44,465 Powertrain: 3.5-liter, 24-valve DOHC V6 with variable-valve timing; five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode; rear-wheel drive (AWD optional) Horsepower: 297 at 6,800 rpm Torque: 253 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm Curb weight: 3,790 pounds 0-60 mph: 7 seconds Wheelbase: 110.2 inches Overall length: 182.3 inches EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway Final thoughts: Savory taste of tomorrow