First of all, I love a driving school. I’ve taken on-track, off-road, rally, and autocross lessons as part of my job. But this time, I took lessons in driving at normal speeds in a normal car. It was not normal.
Volvo is trying out its Advanced Driving Course as a pilot program during the press days at the Los Angeles auto show (now known as Automobility). Volvo knows that you can pack all the safety tech in the world into a car — and Volvo does its best in that regard — but if people don’t know how to drive with it, it won’t prevent crashes or save lives. It was time to learn to work with the technology rather than freaking out when it engaged.
As we were told before hopping in the vehicles, “You as a driver may panic; the car will not.”
Slip ‘n’ Slide … or Not
We used the SkidCar (shown above) to simulate skidding. It lifted the Volvo XC60 just enough off the ground to minimize the tires’ contact with the ground. It was like putting the SUV on its low-traction tiptoes.
We took the sliding course at slow speeds to get used to how the car felt. I drove first in normal mode with traction control off, then with traction control on. Then it was a lap in sport mode without traction control, then a lap with sport mode and traction control.
In both comfort and sport modes, as Volvo calls them, the difference with electronic stability control (ESC) turned on was crucial. It was easy to get the SUV sideways without it; with it, I couldn’t get sideways when I tried. The instructor in the passenger seat would say, “Punch it through here,” and I would press the accelerator to the floor while steering into a hard right turn. Didn’t matter. The system regulated brakes and throttle to keep the SUV from getting into too much trouble.
Lesson: Don’t turn off the traction control.
My Eyes Are Up Here
My eyes are up here because they’re looking far ahead. That was the next section of the course: a slalom at 25 mph with a guy at the end holding a yellow flag. He would raise the flag to signal that I was to skip a cone in the slalom. That meant looking at the cone in front of me and the guy at the other end of the course.
The cone in front of me was like following a car in traffic, explained instructor Don Kitch. The guy with the flag was an accident far ahead of me. The trick is to learn to watch the near and the far events at the same time. He explained that if drivers can learn that skill, it can buy them up to five seconds of reaction time before being involved in a collision.
“They’re not accidents,” Kitch told us, “they’re avoidables.”
Brake It Down
Finally, we put the brakes — and ourselves — to the test. I accelerated to 45 mph in a straight line toward two red flags. When my front bumper reached those flags, I mashed the brake pedal hard. The automatic braking system (ABS) went crazy. I hate that loud shuddering ABS makes, but I appreciate the work it’s doing.
Then they set up a cone to represent a kid who’d run into the road. I had to accelerate to 45 mph and brake at the flags again. The kid cone was just beyond the flags. I did great once … and clipped the kid cone with my back wheel on try number two. Sorry, kid cone.
All told, I was in driving school for almost two hours. I don’t drive a Volvo, but my 2011 Subaru is new enough to have ABS and traction control. I know now how to work with those technologies in an emergency, even if they aren’t as advanced as a brand-new Volvo XC60. And I know how far ahead I need to be looking, even when there’s a car right ahead of me.
There was no certificate or even a sticker for completing the course, but I did get an A from one of the instructors and a fist bump. If Volvo — or anyone — offers adult driving courses in cars with modern safety tech in a parking lot or at a track near you, I cannot recommend enough taking a class like this.–KHG