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The vicissitudes of fate may raise you up or take you out

April 11, 2018
Little in our past can prepare us for life's occasional surprises

A few years ago, I struck a deer with one of my favorite cars, a pristine Acura Integra GSR sedan. It was just after dawn on a divided highway, going westbound with almost no traffic and the sun at my back. Cruising along at perhaps 60 mph, I noticed the deer coming out of the trees toward the right shoulder. At the distance it was from the road, its speed, and my speed, I didn’t see it as a possible threat. A moment later, my airbag blew, my windshield was smashed, and I was slowly on my way to the side of the road. The deer pretty much destroyed everything in front of the firewall on its way over the roof, and the state police found it dead in the median.

I was reminded of that morning by recent news stories of a pedestrian killed by an Uber “self-driving” car under test in Arizona. The stories include video from cameras that recorded the test driver’s view. The crash takes place at night, in clear weather with little or no traffic, and it appears that a full second or so elapses from when the headlights reveal the pedestrian, who is pushing a bicycle, to the impact. You might think an attentive driver could have slowed or turned the car; the control system appears to do nothing—no brakes, no swerve.

At the time, I was perturbed by how badly I avoided the collision with the deer. Police advise that you hit the brakes and if necessary, “drive through the animal.” Swerving won’t guarantee you won’t hit it, and you risk leaving the road or rolling the vehicle. Now, if I see any sign of deer, I slow down as much as traffic will allow. If there’s no traffic, that’s walking speed, and I stay at that speed for at least about a thousand feet.

[pullquote]I was also bothered by the fact that I don’t remember seeing the deer enter the road. We all know reaction time can be as much as half a second, but I only recently learned that a significant amount of that, about a fifth of a second, is taken by vision—the time it takes for light entering our eyes to be processed into an image in the brain. By the time my brain was processing the deer’s progress into the road, I was distracted by the impact. To me, it’s as if that fifth of a second went by in an instant.

It also feels like a short time since I interviewed last year’s inductees into our Hall of Fame, and here we are again. Hall of Fame members tend to be getting on in years, as it takes a while to build a body of work and influence significant enough to earn the accolades of your peers. I am always impressed by the sheer weight of the inductees’ accomplishments, but also by their interactions with fate, and the personal and professional setbacks some of them talk about during the interviews.

One of our guidelines is that inductees must be alive and available to interview, and so far, they all have been at the time we brought them in. But we started the Hall of Fame in 2001, many inductees are in their late 70s and 80s, and over the years, we see some become disconnected and a few stop responding to email. Every now and then, we hear of another who has passed on.

Time waits for no one, and while we think we see its effects clearly and can anticipate and accommodate the inevitable changes it brings, little in our past can prepare us for its occasional surprises. Long-time readers will remember when Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner joined to create "Control Talk," their unique twist on a magazine column, anchored by a cartoon caricature of the two of them enjoying the humorous side of this niche in engineering. Stan recently died. As you can see on page 70, the format has changed a little bit, but Greg soldiers on.

Whether in the blink of an eye or over the decades of Control magazine, things both terrible and wonderful keep making life interesting. The Integra was totaled and then some, but I really like it, so I took the insurance settlement, bought the salvage, and put it back on the road. It’s with my son in Tucson, now at 260,000 miles, and it looks and runs almost like new.

So does Greg. I hope you do, too.

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