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Opinion

‘Electronic safety aids aren’t always as safe as they seem’

Steve Sutcliffe queries the benefit of safety systems added for NCAP stars that are hard to turn off, like the lane assist in the Audi A6

Opinion - Audi A6

What is the point of an electronic safety system if, in practice, it makes you stressed behind the wheel and is fundamentally something you automatically want to switch off for most of the time?

I’m talking here specifically about the lane assist system in the new Audi A6. Now lots of modern exec cars have similar such systems fitted but not one of them, in my experience, is programmed for the lane assist function to be on from the moment you start the engine. In the new A6, however, it’s there on start-up, like it or not. Which means the steering tries to develop a mind of its own – especially on motorways – as soon as you start driving.

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So what do you do? You start scrolling through the menus on the new 10.1-inch touchscreen, trying to find the sub-menu marked “lane assist – on/off.” And in the process you take your eyes off the road several times in your frantic search to switch the function off. And ultimately you fail to find the right sub-menu – because it doesn’t exist.

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• New Audi A6 review

Eventually, you discover, the only way you can switch the system off is by pressing a small button that hides itself away at the bottom of the smaller 8.6-inch touchscreen, the one that sits below the main touchscreen. And then, and only then, do you feel that a sense of normality has appeared within the steering. And at last it feels like you, and only you, are in control of your own trajectory when behind the wheel of the new A6.

So later that day, over dinner following the press conference introducing the new A6 to the world’s press, you ask a key engineer from Audi two questions. One, why is your new lane assist system programmed to be on, right from the word go? Two, why isn’t the button to turn it off accessed within the car’s main settings menu?

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He blushes slightly then admits that, yes, the button to turn it off probably ought to be accessed from the main settings menu, and not just from a small separate button underneath the second touchscreen. He says quietly that this may even end up being adjusted in the fullness of time.

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Fair enough, I say, good of you to admit as much etc. But why is the system set to be on as the default on start-up, I ask again.

• 11 car safety systems to be mandatory from 2021

“Because of the NCAP rating” he replies. “If it was set to be off on start-up we’d have lost half a star” he admits, agreeing that in reality this is not the ideal situation. Agreeing, basically, that the system really ought to be set to off on start up, and that it should then be up to the driver if they want to turn it on. Just like it is in all other cars with lane assist.

Brilliant. So in order to get an extra half star from the ultimate assessors of a vehicle’s safety, Audi has done something that most of its engineers aren’t especially comfortable with. And which I personally think is unsafe given the, shall we say, erratic way in which I drove the new A6 until I sussed out how to switch the wretched lane assist system off.

One question; where is the progress in this?

What do you think about Euro NCAP’s demands for increased use of electronic safety aids in cars? Should drivers be able to turn them off? Let us know in the comments…

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