The GM Report: Learning to Drive All Over Again

By Deane Barker on September 30, 2007


As I mentioned in a previous post, GM flew me out to Detroit this week to take a run at their 2008 lineup. I flew out Tuesday night, and stayed all day Wednesday at their Milford Proving Grounds — essentially a 4,000 acre obstacle course for cars (the Proving Grounds gets its own post tomorrow).

I won’t gulp down this whole thing in one post, so indulge me this week — I think I have four separate things to write about here.

Here goes —

The morning of my day with GM was consumed by an “Advanced Driving Skills Course.” I have no idea why they wanted us to do this. Some guesses: (1) so we didn’t wreck the cars later in the day, (2) to demonstrate GM’s technology, or (3) just to show us a good time. In the end, it accomplished a little of all three.

There were about a dozen of us, so we separated into groups of two or three and took turns at five different events stationed around a massive patch of asphalt filled with orange cones.

The Skid Course

We first hopped into an Impala without any rear wheels. In their place where two outrigger-type wheels on swivels (pictured above). These were initially locked in a north-south direction, just like the actual rear wheels would be, but they could be unlocked at any time, leaving the back end of the car essentially frictionless.

We had to drive towards a set of cones, then turn to the left or right to go around them. At the apex of the turn, the instructor pressed a button which let back end of the car start to whip around.

The idea here was to learn how to “catch” a skid. The old advice holds true: steer in the direction of the skid. Put another way, steer in the direction you want to go.

A few things here are important and overlooked.

  1. You need to steer a lot. I tend to steer with one hand, and this wasn’t enough. You have to turn the wheel hand over hand, often to opposite lock.

  2. The first fishtail is easy to catch. What you’re not ready for is when the backend of the car comes back around. That’s when everyone had a tendency to spin.

  3. You will go where you look, so don’t look into the skid. Look down the road into the horizon. That’s where you want to go.

I’m ashamed to say my experience in South Dakota winters did nothing for me. I was spinning that Impala like a top. It was embarrassing.

High Speed Maneuvering

There wasn’t much point to this except to get us used to reacting quickly at high speed. We boarded a jet black Impala SS, and accelerated towards a set of cones (and we did accelerate — that Impala went like a scorched cat). At the last minute, our instructor would give us a direction, and we had to steer around the cones.

It wasn’t too hard, but we were going about 50 m.p.h. and had about 20 feet to react. Do the math.

I did learn that you have to look where you’re going and make sure you turn hard enough. At that speed, you’re not mentally inclined to turn very hard. You’re subconciously afraid of upsetting the apple cart, so you try to clip the apex and you end up eating cones. You really need to guide the car all way into the center of the lane you’re trying to get to.

Backing Up (my name, not theirs)

I have to say it — this one was a bit lame. They give this course to some teenage children of GM employees, for whom I imagine this comes in handy, but it was fairly boring for me.

We had to back up a Silverado through some cones using a combination of all the mirrors. Not hard, but I did learn to pick a spot on the tailgate of the truck, aim that at something behind me, and keep the two lined up, like the sights of a gun.

Anti-Lock Braking

This one was just like the high-speed maneuvering, except we got to mash on the brakes. The idea was to get us used to working with ABS, instead of against it.

We took a half-dozen runs down the course in a Northstar-powered Buick Lucerne (which is the fastest Buick I’ll ever drive, I’m sure). At the last minute, we had to manuever around the cones, and then back into our own lane. This necessitated braking, or you’d never make it back around.

My Nissan Altima has ABS, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to really use it. I was pleasantly surprised with it — even at high braking pressure, the car was totally steerable.

In fact, on the last run, my instructor told me to “panic” and hit the brakes as hard as I could. I complied, but I could still completely steer the Buick around the obstacle and back into my lane while bringing it down from 50 m.p.h. to almost a complete stop in what felt like about 80 feet. The stop was violent, but controllable.

Stabilitrak

This last one was an demonstration by the instructors. They had two identical Buick Lucernes, but one was rigged with a switch to shut off Stabilitrak.

Stabilitrak is GM’s name for their stability control system. What it does is detect the yaw of the car — the difference between the direction it’s turning and the direction it’s traveling. If the difference is too much, too fast, it assumes you’re in trouble and starts applying the brakes to specific wheels to bring you back under control.

So we jumped in the non-Stabilitrak Lucerne and went rocketing down the strip. The instructor “whip-sawed” the car — yanked the wheel hard to the left, then hard back to the right, to force the car into a fishtail. It worked, and we got tossed around like rag dolls.

We swapped cars (into the one with Stabilitrak) and did the same thing again. To be honest, I couldn’t tell much difference in the Stabilitrak-equipped Lucerne from inside the car — it just went so fast.

However, after my run, when I was watching others from 100-yards down the track, it was obvious that the car without Stabilitrak was in a lot more trouble than the other one. It had a tendency to whip back and forth three or four times, while the Stabilitrak Lucerne went once then was brought under control.

(Just to make sure I’m not shilling too hard here — Stabilitrak is the trade name for an “Electronic Stability Control” (ESC), first pioneered by Mercedes Benz. Most manufacturers have their own implementation of it — the Wikipedia page linked above lists all the names used to describe it.

In the United States, ESC is required to be on all new cars for the 2012 model year. GM is apparently trying to beat the mandate by a year and have it on all 2011 models.)

So, the morning was both fun and educational. I did learn a thing or two, and it gave me a chance to do things I could never do on a public street. Essentially, we were allowed to get ourselves in trouble, then try to get ourselves out of it.

I have a 13-year-old that’s going to be driving in a few years, and I’d love for him to take a course like this. Even if you don’t master anything, you start to get a feel for how a car reacts at the limit and what you can expect.

Even when I was tearing down the strip in that Lucerne waiting for the instructor to fishtail it, I was fairly calm because I had been doing much the same thing all morning. Had I been driving, I would have been in a better position to do something about it.

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Comments

  1. Kinda glad I moved away from SD now that Deane will be rocketing down 41st street in Sioux Falls attempting to recreate these maneuvers in his Honda minivan.

  2. Sounds like fun! I’ve always wanted to go through a driver’s training course that involved stuff like that; but your description of the skid course gives me reason to be glad I learned to drive in the country on gravel & dirt roads, with a rear-drive V8-powered car. When learning to drive on surfaces that offer less than optimal traction, the limits are pretty close at hand and you get lots of opportunity to learn how to handle sticky situations (that said, I’d probably find myself spinning like a top in a car with a set of casters on the back end.)

    This brings to mind something that has bugged me for a long time: Driver education in the US today stinks. A driver’s license is little more than an ID card anymore, and the test for getting one shows that. Outside of textbook discussions, driver’s ed doesn’t cover much more than normal driving conditions, so most drivers are totally unprepared for anything but an easy drive down the street. Heck, most drivers don’t know what to do at a 4-way stop, much less what to do to recover from a slide. Wouldn’t the money spent on advanced nanny controls on cars be better spent on even a little hands-on behind the wheel skills development?

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