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2009 Infiniti FX35: Lessons from a car that drives itself

Consumer Reports News: June 16, 2009 07:08 AM

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Cars that can drive themselves are a technology of the future, right?

After driving the latest Infiniti FX35, I can answer the question with a definitive, sort of.

Our FX35 is equipped with forward warning, intelligent cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-departure prevention, and an “around view monitor” to aid parking maneuvers. Unlike similar systems we’ve tried before, the forward-collision warning and lane departure systems can help keep the car on track, push back on the throttle, and even apply the brakes, in addition to sounding alarms inside the cabin. In stop-and-go traffic, the distance-control alert system can even bring the car to a full stop.

Using these systems, the FX35 can brake and accelerate on its own, and it can even provide small steering inputs using the brakes. I tried to leave the systems turned on as much as possible to experience their capabilities and limitations.

Mostly, it all works as advertised. But driving is about a lot more than stepping on the gas and brake, or even turning the steering wheel.

For example, the FX35 won’t stop for stop signs when no one else is around. Neither do many of my fellow drivers, I realize, but it’s still the law.

While the distance control alert can stop the FX35 behind another car in traffic, it doesn’t stay stopped for long. After about a second, it releases the brakes and creeps ahead – then applies the brakes again when it “sees” the car in front still hasn’t moved. If you don’t want to hit it eventually, you’ll still have to hold the brakes.

Before the FX applies the brakes, the distance-control alert system pushes back on the gas pedal to try to get the driver to back off when approaching another car too closely. For better or worse, that means much of the time the driver is fighting extra throttle resistance in suburban cut-and-thrust driving. Worse, when the car in front of you suddenly moves out of the lane or goes around a curve, it can create a disconcerting momentary acceleration as the resistance in the gas pedal is suddenly diminished.

Using the intelligent cruise control allows the car to accelerate to a pre-set speed (by using the cruise-control’s Resume feature). The cruise allows you to set the following distance for between two seconds and three seconds behind the car in front of you. Until I timed it, I found it troubling that I always wanted to use the closest setting. But the system builds in a healthy safety margin.

Infiniti’s lane-departure warning system works in conjunction with the side- and forward-view cameras. It does a good job identifying when the FX35 drifts from its lane. (If you use the turn signals it won’t beep when you mean to change lanes.) Adding lane-departure prevention allows the system to apply the brakes on one side of the vehicle individually to try to pull the vehicle back into its lane. But at highway speeds, the system intervenes too late, and too feebly to really keep you from leaving your lane, much less negotiate a curve. (Other systems, on the Lexus GS and LS can also control the steering, but provide only slight inputs when moving forward, still not enough to negotiate curves.)

Not surprisingly, all these systems seem to be fighting the driver for control at times, mostly to try to get the driver to slow down, not follow so close, or stay in the lane, which might have the potential of keeping more cars on the road. But for most attentive drivers it’s often tempting  to just turn these devices  off. Human drivers are much more coordinated and smoother—so long as they are paying attention.

Infiniti-FX-around-view-monitorIn reverse, our FX35 displays the car’s surroundings on a split-view screen on the center of the dashboard. (It works going forward at very slow speeds as well.) At first this seemed handy for knowing how close you are to other parked cars, for example. But I soon found I’m not much more coordinated at backing up an actual car by video than I am at driving video games. It was hard to follow a straight line without looking over your shoulder. As soon as you try turning to look, though, you realize it’s a good thing the FX35 has the around view monitor; it’s nearly impossible to see the car’s surroundings through the narrow window slits and around the big rear pillars. The surround video does provide an extra measure of safety, especially if children may be around.

In the end, it’s fun to try the technology of the future. But even with all these systems, you still have to drive the car.

See the complete Infiniti FX35 ratings and road test, available to online subscribers.

Eric Evarts


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