• October 9, 2023

The last operational German battleship – Scharnhorst – was hounded to her doom by a fleet of British warships tasked with sinking her, which they did after a furious sea battle culminating in a lucky shot (from the British point-of-view) that crippled the fleeing ship, which had almost out-paced her pursuers when the fatal blow was landed. She lost her speed advantage and her enemies closed in for the kill.

But she might have been able to escape had she seen what was coming.

Scharnhorst’s radar was not very effective even when it was working – and it wasn’t working at all when she sortied in rough seas for what would prove to be the last time. The British fleet sent to intercept her had better detection equipment and were thus better able to keep track of where she was – and where she was going. Which was, ultimately, to the bottom of the sea.

Driving any new vehicle without a radar detector can be similarly fatal – to your wallet and your driving privileges. In italics to emphasize the transition of what was once understood to be a right that was sacrosanct into something you’re allowed to exercise (in a very conditional way) if you obey.

The incongruity between what any modern car is capable of doing – safely – and what we’re allowed to do with a modern car is striking.

And frustrating.

As an example, this week I am test driving a 2024 Toyota Tundra, which is a truck. Some will remember when trucks did not drive like cars. More specifically, like high-performance cars. They do now. Or at least, this one does. It has a 437 horsepower twin-turbo engine and a ten speed transmission, the top three gears being overdrive gears. You’re doing 75 before you have time to glance at the speedometer.

And 75 feels like 45.

Holding it back to 55 – the speed limit on the road I was on the other day – is not unlike emulating the old-man shuffle down the sidewalk when you’re a young man and perfectly capable of walking at a brisk pace.

The Tundra is not an extreme example, either. Consider the other end of the spectrum – the 2024 Toyota Prius hybrid I test drove a few weeks ago. It is capable of accelerating to 60 MPH more quickly (in about 7 seconds) than roughly two-thirds of the V8-powered muscle cars of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And – like the Tundra and like all vehicles made over the past 10-15 years or so – has deep overdrive gearing, meant to reduce engine RPM at high speed in order to reduce fuel consumption. But this gearing also has the effect of making high speeds feel slow. At 70-75 MPH, the engine in such a car is typically fast-idling. At the same road speed, a ’60s or ’70s muscle car’s engine would be screaming – well on its way to redlining – because there was no overdrive gearing and also because the final drive gearing (in the axle) was usually low, to get the car moving quickly. Zero to 60 and how quickly a car could cover the quarter-mile was everything in those days.

But you felt like you were going really fast by the end of the quarter mile – even though in most cases you were only going 100 MPH or so. In a new Tundra – or Prius – 100 is what 60 used to be. It does not feel especially fast, as it did back in the day. The Tundra – or the Prius – isn’t working very hard at 100 MPH. You will need to go considerably faster to get the same or even a similar feeling as you got back in the day doing 70 or 80 in a muscle car.

All modern cars are sorely under-used relative to their capability. It is not merely that they are able to go so much faster (and make you feel silly for driving them so slowly). They are able to go faster safely. Because they are able to slow-down faster and with greater controllability, courtesy of now ubiquitous four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and vastly better tires. If a car made in 1970 was “safe” to drive 70-75 MPH (this was the legal highway speed limit in most states back then) then surely a vehicle – even a truck – made 50 years later is just as “safe” to drive at 80-85.

And of course, that’s true.

The problem is, it’s illegal. In some states, it is criminal. Virginia says driving faster than 80 MPH anywhere (even on a highway with a 70 MPH speed limit) is prima facie “reckless” driving and the offender can be arrested and jailed for it.

It makes driving any modern vehicle unsafe, alright – for the driver. Who will find himself in essentially the same harrowing position as the skipper of Scharnhorst, if he sorties without a radar detector.

Readers of this column know I almost never leave port without one – and neither should you, if you don’t want to find yourself signing a piece of payin’ paper. And possibly dealing with something worse than that.

. . .

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