Tech on ice: We test Ford’s new all-wheel drive system to see if electronics help or hinder driving

2013 Ford Fusion winter testingWhen most people ponder the inner workings of a car, they imagine mechanical bits working together to create motion. However, computers are doing an increasing amount of the work: sensors allow the engine, brakes, and other systems to talk to each other and make corrections before the driver even knows what’s happening.

This tech is quite new, but new doesn’t always equal better. Is this really an improvement, or just an electronic nanny isolating the driver from the road? Is processing power really what it takes to keep a wayward car on the road?

That’s why Ford invited us to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to test out its new all-wheel drive systems and related tech. It was time to pay a visit to the automotive nanny state.

We drove Fusion sedans and Escape and Explorer Sport crossovers on surfaces ranging from packed snow to solid, hockey-rink style ice. It’s where no sane person would ever willingly take a car, but that’s what we’re here for.

2013 Ford Explorer SportDriving all of the wheels some of the time

Ford obviously isn’t the only carmaker with all-wheel drive, but the Blue Oval Brigade claims its system is more flexible and responsive than others. That’s because, most of the time, drivers won’t be using it.

If you’re cruising down the highway trying to get Ford Sync to read your texts, no power is sent to the rear wheels in the name of fuel economy. However, when the system detects what Ford calls “dynamic driving,” it leaps into action.

Ford isn’t the only carmaker to give the front wheels the lion’s share of the work, but this was the first time we were able to experience such a system without having to file an insurance claim afterwards.

Driving on slippery surfaces, the system was remarkably responsive. It was hard to tell what was going on at any given moment, because the car’s electronic brain constantly shifts power around, using everything from yaw rate to steering wheel angle input to calculate the ideal distribution.

That responsiveness can also be a bit eerie once you try to get a little more involved. The flip side of having an electronic safety net is that the car will intervene when it thinks you’re screwing up. We could feel the computers cut engine power and brake individual wheels at times.

If you’re just trying to get home, then, it works well. With the traction control on, all three vehicles we drove were very tractable, responding to control inputs in a predictable manner. Bottom line: Performance drivers may not enjoy it, but it kept us out of the snow banks.

Ford Explorer Terrain Response Management knobJekyll and Hyde on ice

We also tested Ford’s Terrain Management, which is available only on the big seven-passenger Explorer. Using a rotary knob on the center console, drivers can adjust the Explorer’s behavior to suit different conditions.

Land Rover does a similar trick with its Terrain Response system, but instead of using it to conquer the wilderness, Ford has put the electronics to work creating a bigger margin of error on the road.

In the most restrictive “Grass/Gravel/Snow” mode, the throttle becomes laggy and the car seems to second-guess your every move. Turn the dial to “Sand,” and the engine growls as the throttle sharpens up. There are also “Mud/Ruts” and, for non-apocalyptic conditions, “Normal.”

Again, it’s uncanny how the electronics can change the behavior of the car. With the twist of a dial, the Explorer went from sedate to rowdy, It all depends on how much work the driver feels like doing.

Tech tackles physics

The impact of smart all-wheel drive and other electronic driver aids on regular driving is a story for another day, but after our time on ice we can say that they work as advertised. It may feel a bit unnatural to an experienced driver, but winter driving just got easier.

Gaming

Microsoft is reportedly planning an Xbox One without a disc drive for 2019

Microsoft is reportedly planning to release a new Xbox One model without a disc drive in 2019. The console will be significantly cheaper than other Xbox One systems, including the Xbox One S.
Computing

Want to make one hard drive act like two? Here's how to partition in Windows

If you don't want all of your files stored in one place but only have one drive to work with, partitioning is your best way forward. Here's how to partition a hard drive in Windows 10, step by step.
Computing

Want to use one drive between a Mac and Windows PC? Partitions are your best bet

Compatibility issues between Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X may have diminished sharply over the years, but that doesn't mean they've completely disappeared. Here's how to make an external drive work between both operating systems.
Cars

Many adults believe fully self-driving cars are already traversing U.S. highways

The American Automobile Association tested cars with features such as lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control and found them lacking in real-world conditions. Forty percent of surveyed U.S. adults think self-driving cars exist now.
Cars

Prep your car for the coming snow and sleet with these cold weather tips

Driving in the winter, whether downtown or across the country, is rarely easy. Luckily, we've put together a quick rundown of a few things you should do to winterize your car before the snow officially hits.
Digital Trends Live

DT Daily: Waymo’s driverless cars, ‘Fallout 76’ tips, and Racella

In today's episode of DT Daily, we discuss Waymo's foray into the ridesharing sector, along with various tips for making the most of the recently launched Fallout 76. We also sit down with singer Racella to chat about her new EP, Waves.
Cars

Jeep’s outdoorsy Gladiator pickup truck bares it all ahead of schedule

Jeep will introduce the long-promised Wrangler-based pickup truck at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. Named Gladiator, the model was designed to conquer the great outdoors, not for the construction site.
Cars

Want to keep connected on the road? Here are 5 ways to add Bluetooth to your car

The best way to make an old ride feel young again is to bring it up speed with the 21st century. Here's how to properly add Bluetooth to your vehicle, via independent kits, vehicle adapters, or aftermarket head units.
Cars

The hamster-friendly 2020 Kia Soul will rock out at the Los Angeles Auto Show

Kia has released a teaser image to preview the next Soul. Scheduled to make its debut at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, the 2020 Soul will keep the outgoing model's boxy proportions but it will wear a sharper design.
Cars

2020 Toyota Corolla sedan aims to offer sharper handling, better tech

The 2020 Toyota Corolla sedan gets the same upgrades as the recently-introduced Corolla hatchback, including a firmer foundation, new engine, and more tech features. Will that be enough to keep the long-lived Corolla nameplate relevant?
Cars

Startup Rivian exits stealth mode with a bold promise to electrify off-roaders

Electric car startup Rivian has finally turned off stealth mode and provided details about what it's been working on since 2009. It will build battery-powered off-roaders instead of taking on Tesla and others in the luxury EV segment.
Cars

Honda will squeeze another model into its SUV lineup at the Los Angeles show

Honda will introduce a new SUV with a familiar nameplate at the 2018 Los Angeles auto show. It envisioned the 2019 Passport as a five-seater alternative to the eight-seater Pilot. The two models will share a platform and many tech features.
Cars

Uber rolls out rewards program that lets its most loyal riders lock in prices

Uber launched a new loyalty program today called Uber Rewards. It offers frequent riders credits to Uber Eats, car upgrades, and the ability to lock in prices on their most traveled routes.
Cars

The world’s first 3D-printed titanium wheels are so intricate they look fake

HRE Performance Wheels and GE Additive have teamed up to create the world's first 3D-printed titanium wheels. They are not only impressively durable, but extremely lightweight as well.