My rental vehicle in the US was a Kia Optima FE and it had a lot of extra little features I’d never been exposed to before. The one of most interest was auto-steer, or “lane keep assist” it’s sometimes referred to as.
The way I discovered it had this feature was when I was driving to Austin on a slow left hand bend when I felt the steering wheel start to pull me off the road. Ever so slightly disconcerting at 70mph! What the heck was tugging on the steering wheel? I initially thought the car needed a wheel alignment or the tyre pressures were badly off.
Thinking back I’d been having warning alerts go off in the hour previously but didn’t know what they were for. I realised that it was complaining about my lane position. One of the challenges when you’re driving on the other side of the road is that the sight-line you’re used to using from the driving position to the center or outside lines of the road to get your correct road position is thrown out by sitting on the other side of the vehicle.
After a few days driving on the right hand side of the road I’d retrained my brain so that’s fine but the car was pointing this out to me for several hours before I realised what it was doing. (Please note: I wasn’t drifting OUT of my lane, but I was too far across to the right hand edge of my lane, not enough to cause an incident but enough to upset lane-keep).
Back to Auto-steer. I realised through observation that the green steering wheel icon would appear at speeds above 40mph when the car could “see” solid or regularly dashed lines on either side of the roadway ahead of it. If it did see them I could let go of the wheel for a period of time and the car would then keep itself in the lane. It worked well enough but there were a few little problems.
- Sharper bends were a fail: I pushed the car’s limits a bit on this one, with my hands at the ready as I let it steer through ever-sharper turns but ultimately I learned when I pushed it too hard to not trust it to steer itself on anything other than the most gentle of curves in the road
- Missing lines caused jerking: This is what happened in the first incident I mentioned - there was a gap in the outside line of the road due to a series of driveway entrances on a more rural section of the highway which confused the auto-steer system
- The no-hands on wheel alarm: After about 20 seconds of not touching the wheel the system would alert you to the fact you hadn’t been holding the wheel and cut out auto-steer if you didn’t grab the wheel. In practice when I was lightly holding the wheel it wasn’t detected at all especially on a straight stretch of roadway and I had to forcibly inject a small correction into the wheel even if it wasn’t warranted to convince it I was actually holding the wheel.
- On freeways with lots of merges it’s rough: Particularly in heavy traffic I just turned if off and stopped using it. It wasn’t safe and I didn’t trust it. To be fair I have the same policy with a cruise control - it has no place in heavily congested traffic at those speeds.
It’s not all bad news and limitations however:
- You don’t drift if you look away anymore: You can say it as much as you like, “always keep your eyes on the road” and if you need something from the passenger seat, glove box, sometimes even the radio, the advice is “pull over until it’s safe to do so”. The counter-arguement with freeways is that this isn’t usually practical - most freeways don’t have wide enough shoulders to safely stop, there’s too much traffic to safely stop, they don’t have enough exits set aside for breaks - once you’re on it, you’re stuck on it. Hence if you do look away from the road, the direction that you look or lean no matter how good a driver you are, you’ll start to drift the car in that direction. With this feature - that’s no longer an issue.
- Less tiring: I wouldn’t have thought it would have such an impact but driving back late at night when you’re tired the Auto-Steer made a huge difference. I found I could focus more on the cars around me (the few that were) and the map guidance and let the car take that cognitive load off of me. It worked really well.
I’m strongly considering a Tesla Model 3 or Model Y in a few years time when it’s time for my next car and I’m now more excited than ever that this kind of technology is becoming cheaper and hence more accessible and whilst the Kia implementation (according to others reviews I’ve read) isn’t as good as Teslas, it’s still good enough to be useful and I’m glad I had it.