The last time I allowed a car to drive itself while I was behind the steering wheel, I was driving a luxury sedan on winding mountain roads near Cape Town.
Last week, I was in the new Ford Ranger Wildtrak X on the open roads of the Northern Cape, somewhere between Upington and Augrabies, where it felt reasonably safe to push the current boundaries of self-driving.
To put that in context, it is perfectly legal to use the drive assist functionality that now comes with most high-end vehicles. This includes lane-keep assist to warn when one is veering out of a lane without having indicated, adaptive cruise control to keep a standard distance behind the vehicle traveling ahead, and the likes.
In the world of autonomous vehicle technology, this is classified by the Society of Automotive Engineers as Level 2 autonomy, also referred to as “Partial Driving Automation”, meaning that the vehicle can control steering, acceleration and braking, but the driver must be ready to take over.
Right now, that is as far as standard production vehicles are allowed to go, and the launch of the Ford Ranger Wildtrak X was the ideal opportunity to test just how far one could take Level 2. The glib answer: as far as the open road will take you.
The complex answer: The vehicle is a showcase of technologies that point the way all the way up to Level 5 in the not-too-distant future, but also highlights the distance we still need to travel as an industry and as a motoring population.
The new Ford Ranger Wildtrak X in its natural environment, off-road somewhere near the Namibia Border. Pic by ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
Let’s first look at the positioning of the vehicle: the X is a compromise between the standard Wildtrak and the Raptor. Although I’d like to think the X stands for that autonomy X factor the vehicle offers, the letter better represents a crossing point between the two, leaning towards the off-road capabilities of the Raptor. Many of these capabilities are subtle enhancements, like a 30-mm wider track, 24 mm higher ground clearance – 261mm vs 237mm on the standard Ranger – Rock Crawl mode and a slightly improved approach angle.
It does introduce one standout new feature in this regard: Trail Turn Assist, designed to help negotiate tight bends of narrow tracks, by applying brakes on the inside rear wheel. In effect, this rotates the vehicle around the rear wheel, reducing the turning circle by up to 25%, making for impossibly tight turns at speeds under 19km/h. That’s not autonomy, but its advanced vehicle technology of the highest order.
Only the X and the Raptor offer the Rock Crawl mode, which takes the number of drive modes to a Raptor-equalling seven, including Normal, Eco, Tow Haul, Slippery, Mud & Ruts, and Sand.
The X whips the Raptor in the haulage stakes, offering a payload capacity oif 945kg vs 667kg, and significantly higher towing power. Its 2-litre offers substantially better fuel economy on the open road. Off-road, its Grabber all-terrain tyres with a 30mm wider track combine with specially-developed Bilstein position-sensitive dampers, offering greater stability on gravel and the like.
The X offers enhanced autonomy, with both lane-keep assist and road edge detection, a blind spot monitoring system that includes trailer coverage, and Active Park Assist 2.0. The latter goes beyond automated parallel parking, adding “park out” to get out of the parking sport automatically, and perpendicular parking. We’ll try out and report on these and other high-tech features once we are able to review the vehicle for longer.
During the launch, we tested a combination of lane keeping, road edge detection, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with stop & go, lane centering, and evasive steer assist.
Under standard conditions, the features worked flawlessly, and at one stage I drove for half an hour without a foot on the accelerator or brake, even while driving through the town of Keimoes, and negotiating stops and turns. Fortunately, none of the curious onlookers – even innocent bystanders tend to recognise new models when they see them – realised the car was doing it by itself, or they may have kept a greater distance.
On the open road, it was easier to be more adventurous, but the Wildtrak X lets you know in no uncertain terms when you are overstepping the boundaries. It allowed me to keep my hand off the wheel for about half a minute before the warnings began, first visual and then audible. When I ignored the audible warning, the car in effect said, Okay! That’s it! and began slowing down in preparation to move to the side of the road. For my sins, I had to reactivate both following distance and lane-keep assist, all but promised to be a more compliant driver.
The bottom line, however, is that the Wildtrak X provides ample evidence that autonomy is arriving in even the most adventure-oriented vehicles.