The Mystery of All Wheel Drive


As the hustle and bustle of the season draws to a close we now have a little more time to ponder the mysteries of life. What else can you do while riding your exercise bike trying not to think of those three boxes of “turtles” you got for Christmas. Some of us are content to live within the mystery of life and simply react to it. Others like to dig a little deeper, try to expand our, albeit limited human understanding. Get a little bit of a glimpse in.

What does this have to do with cars? How should I put this? For most drivers, I feel, the automobile is pretty much a mystery of modern science. Turn the key and go. Maybe now you just push the button and go. You know what I mean.

Here in the Kootenays during the winter months there is one more step. If you are not blessed with owning an all wheel drive vehicle ‘turn the key and go’ turns into ‘turn the key and go get a shovel and some kitty litter’.

Many of us (myself included) have fallen to the allure of an all wheel drive vehicle. I/We are confident that anytime we take it out and we are driving on normal roads we are not going to get stuck. The shovel is for the garden and the kitty litter is for the cat.

Driving one of these all wheel drive mysteries is a piece of cake. They make winter conditions almost always feel let’s just say ‘comfortable’. How come then, on a slippery day, if we count the vehicles in the ditch most of them are of the ‘all wheel drive’ type? Hence the word in the title “Mystery”.

Through my seasonal pondering I have come up with a theory. There are many drivers on the road that have either never driven any other type of vehicle in the winter or they have had an all wheel drive vehicle for so long they have forgot what it was like. They may have had say a Subaru all their driving lives. These vehicles essentially disguise driving conditions particularly when driving uphill. The shifting of power transmission to the wheel with the most traction goes on seamlessly. The ESP (Electronic Stability Program: the subject of a previous article) watches accelerometers and gyros to maintain the direction the driver is requesting. The computers within the vehicle’s network are crunching numbers at a rate that makes corrections near imperceptible to the driver.

Unfortunately these electronic computer controlled system (nannies; I like to call them) make the driver feel like a hero while he/she easily steers around that semi clawing its way up the Rossland/Trail hill. Travelling the posted speed limit in slippery conditions is a no brainer. At least uphill it may be. Turn around the other way and things change.

The posted speed limit is way too fast for conditions going down the hill. That slippery corner going uphill was easily disguised. Downhill it is another story. Vehicle speed simply exceeds the traction available on turns. For sure the ESP system will work hard to keep you where you want to go but when all four wheels have reached their limit of grip there is no magic left. You will lose control. The result will be more serious as your speed is too high.

I would suggest any drivers who have not experienced winter driving or any feeling a little rusty start with a two wheel drive vehicle with no nannies in a very large empty slippery parking lot. Get a driving instructor of sorts to show you the ropes. Get a real feel for what you can and can’t do on a slippery surface. Let your first wipe out be a harmless one. Gain some respect for the “mystery of your all wheel drive”. Learn not to put all your faith in it.

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