Ezra Dyer: Driver Assist Comes in Handy at an Unexpected Time

ezra dyer may june column
Ezra Dyer: Hands-Free Helps When You Least ExpectEzra Dyer - Car and Driver

From the May/June issue of Car and Driver.

If you're ever contemplating a 1500-mile family driving vacation on I-95 during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, I have some advice: Go step on a rake and hope that when you regain your senses, your first thought is "I should just fly." But if you still entertain the notion that an end-of-the-year holiday road trip won't be so bad, try to get your hands on a vehicle that can help shoulder the burden. In my case, that meant a plug-in-hybrid Lincoln Corsair with the optional hands-free highway-driving assist system, a.k.a. Ford's BlueCruise.

ezra dyer may june column
Ezra Dyer - Car and Driver

My plan was to drive about 750 miles from North Carolina to Miami. On the way down, we'd break up the trip with a stop in Orlando, but the return drive would be a straight shot. Under ideal circumstances, that last leg might take a little more than 11 hours. But hey, I've driven 1000 miles in a day. And that was without help from BlueCruise or my personal fully autonomous backup driving system, HEATHER (Hostile Exasperated Autopilot That Hates Every Road). On a trip like this, HEATHER is normally in sleep mode but can be activated if I become temporarily unable to deal with the staggering incompetence of fellow motorists or need to two-hand a chicken sandwich for a couple of miles.


Besides avoiding the misery that is holiday air travel, my goal was to determine just how helpful a system like BlueCruise could be over a long-haul trip. Level 2 autonomy draws warranted criticism over the contradiction between its purported promise and its actual conditions of engagement—if relaxation is the goal, then BlueCruise, which might randomly delegate control of a car in a dicey situation at 75 mph, would seem to offer the opposite. It's pretty much like you've handed the wheel to a precocious seven-year-old boy. He gets the idea most of the time, but when you're heading into a lane shift with a Jersey barrier on the left and 80,000 pounds of semi on the right, you're probably going to want to step in with adult supervision.

I love these hands-free systems just from a pure geek engineering standpoint, but I also loved autonomous parallel parking when I first tried it in a 2010 Lincoln MKT. When I later bought a Lincoln MKT, I used that feature roughly twice before concluding that backing in myself was quicker and easier. Ford, looking at data transmitted from its cars, eventually realized that nobody ever used the active park assist and recently dropped it after more than a decade in production. Could hands-free highway driving be a similar exercise in clever pointlessness?

ezra dyer may june column
Ezra Dyer - Car and Driver

According to Ford's online trip planner, I'd have plenty of opportunity to find out, since 87 percent of my route would be on BlueCruise-enabled highways. It all started swimmingly, with the Corsair navigating a lane shift in the rain while keeping its distance from a truck in the next lane. As I expected, sometimes it would cancel after a mile, and on other stretches, it would stay engaged for 50 miles or more. Getting to Orlando and then Miami wasn't too bad. The hands-free driving was more novel than necessary.

The return trip was a different story. You know you're in for a rough day when the navigation system says the next turn is 688 miles away. But over 12 tedious hours in the Corsair's massaging driver's seat, I think I discovered the true application for hands-free highway driving, and it's not when you're sailing along at cruising speed over vast distances.

BlueCruise saved my sanity not on the open road but during the countless slowdowns for accidents, when traffic creeps, idles, and trundles along at 25 mph for mile after endless mile. This is when your attention can flag—when driving is a thankless chore, simultaneously stressful and boring. It's also when BlueCruise is at its best, seldom canceling and consistently keeping a watchful distance from the car ahead. You get a chance to relax and observe—it's like taking a break without stopping. At times like these, hands-free driving stops feeling like a parlor trick and starts feeling like a benefit. When else are you going to have hours of time to hone your air-drumming skills?

But 12 hours of driving is an awfully long stint, even with the car acting as your co-pilot. That said, I'd love to use BlueCruise for this trip again next year. There can be some mean traffic jams on the way to the airport.

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