It was eerie driving on I-75 in Northern Michigan at 65mph recently without my hands touching the steering wheel or my foot touching the gas pedal or brake.
While full-time autonomous driving is still years away, automotive technology already allows it part-time.
I was test driving a 2015 Acura TLX, the new mid-size marvel replacing both the TSX and TL sport sedans in the Acura line-up.
To say that it’s loaded with high-tech driver assistance safety systems is an understatement, and I had to resist the urge to call out, “Look, Ma, no hands!”. Maybe I did.
While cruise control took care of the speed, Acura’s lane keeping system, which uses advanced cameras to monitor the lines on both sides of the lane, kept me centered safely within them.
Eventually, the lane keeper might allow for continuous autonomous driving, but right now it’s designed for up to ten seconds of what is universally known as distracted driving before you are buzzed, blinked or vibrated back to attention.
Controlling distracted driving
We’ve all done it – taken our eyes off the road ever so briefly to change the audio or temperature, check the navigation screen, or glance at the kids in the back seat.
Acura’s Lake Keeping Assist System (LKAS) gives you that margin of safety, and then blinks “steering required” when your time is up, even when the road continues as straight and empty as it was before the warning.
Bryan Haut, one of senior engineers who spent five years developing the TLX, told me LKAS recognizes even the slightest pressure on the steering wheel. If there’s none for ten seconds, you get the wake up call.
LKAS works in tandem with Acura’s lane departure system, which blinks a warning if you go over the line on either side of the lane. If your departure is serious enough, the steering wheel vibrates and the computer takes over the steering to get you centered again.
It’s one of a package of cameras and systems loaded into the TLX, all designed and engineered to help keep us safe. Equally important, they are mini-steps to full autonomous driving.
I admit to testing that, too, deliberately heading into the oncoming lane on an empty country road to see what would happen. It’s just as eerie to feel the steering wheel moving of its own accord when your hands are on it, pulling you back into safety.
As great as these two systems are, I have a suggestion for the engineers: a blinking warning light in the dashboard is not enough for the lane keeping system. Add a warning a sound or make the seat vibrate, or both.
AcuraWatch Safety Systems
The Acura TLX is loaded with other safety systems, too, all standard equipment, including forward collision warning system, blind spot monitoring and a new cross traffic monitor that expands the backup camera function with radar. Essentially, that’s blind spot monitoring when you are in reverse. The cameras use narrow band radar and can recognize a pedestrian, even a small animal.
There’s also a new Agile Handling Assist (AHA), essentially power steering on steroids on twisty or slippery roads. And the frame is itself is a safety system, with high strength materials from the door frame to the rear, and more absorbant materials in the front.
That so-called crumple zone is meant to absorb impact in a frontal collision, reducing injury to a pedestrian who might be hit as well as to vehicle occupants.
Some features are for serious driving fun. They are called Sport Plus mode and paddle shifters, also standard.
Another change for Acura is that it is now more independent from parent Honda, via a corporate reorganization last year. “Honda is mass market, and the luxury space has to be separate from that” with its own brand identity, Acura senior VP Mike Accavitti told me.
Acura went its own way with the biggest advertising and marketing budget in Acura history to launch the TLX, such as cutting edge commercials with Sid Vicious singing “My Way”.
That commercial was designed specifically to attract performance-oriented males in that sweet spot 34-45 age group, who want a combination of luxury, prestige and dynamic performance at an affordable price.
2016 Acura TLX pricing
That sweet spot would be $31,000 to $45,000, depending on whether you opt for the 4cylinder, V6 or V6 all-wheel drive, which makes the TLX a formidable competitor against the BMW 3 Series, Lexus IS, Mercedes-Benz C Class and Audi A4.
Project leader Mat Hargett told me simply, “It’s the best Acura I have driven”. It has to be, to compete with that crowd.
The Acura TLX is assembled in Honda’s Maryville, Ohio factory, which produces 90% of Acura vehicles, most of which are sold in North America.