Netflix's Bird Box, which was released just before the holiday season, is already the streaming service's most-watched original film ever. You or someone you know probably watched it during their time off from work while seeing off 2018 in sweatpants. The movie has spawned blindfold-themed memes and a wacky (and foolish) viral "Bird Box Challenge" wherein people try everyday tasks blindfolded. We were more taken by the movie's depiction of several characters painting over a Jeep Grand Cherokee's windows before venturing out into the apocalyptic aftermath of mass suicidal mania to scavenge food from a supermarket, essentially driving blind.
If that sounds improbable, well, we thought so too. In the movie, the vehicle's occupants aren't able to look out the windows or use the video feed from its backup camera, because anyone who looks at the supernatural beings succumbs to the aforementioned mania and dies. The fictional driver instead relies on the navigation system's directions and the audible and visual pings of the parking system to slither the Jeep Grand Cherokee between and around wrecked cars and dead bodies (sometimes over dead bodies). Yeah, right.
We had to try this for ourselves. And we just so happened to have a Grand Cherokee like the one used in Bird Box (pictured above) on hand, along with our office's curiously large collection of plastic garbage bins. So we combined the two to test the idea that one could steer a car around obstacles using only the parking sensors and the navigation system. Let us be clear: Don't try this at home. We used an off-road course, and we have some experience driving cars using non-direct-visual means (we tried something similar using night vision a few years back).
Lacking an apocalyptic event-Michigan's frigid January weather doesn't quite make the cut-we set up an obstacle course using the plastic refuse bins on an empty dead-end service driveway. We placed the Jeep at the far end of this drive and papered over its front windows. With no advance knowledge of the obstacles' layouts-the arrangement was done after this driver was ensconced in the papered-up SUV-this author (the driver) was given the seemingly simple task of driving slowly down the straight road, empty save for a curb on the right and the left and our randomly arranged obstacles. It proved extremely difficult-we couldn't imagine trying this on the street depicted in the movie (below).
Driving without directly looking where you're going is as dumb as it appears, and the feedback loop from the parking system barely improves things. The sensors aren't terribly accurate, and their operating distance is short. They begin to alert the driver with progressively more urgent, closer-spaced beeping sounds once an object draws within about four feet of the vehicle.
Simultaneously, a readout in the digital gauge-cluster screen (in the movie, a similar readout is faked on the dashboard's larger, more telegenic center touchscreen display) shows several lines in front of and behind a graphical representation of the car as viewed from above. As you creep closer to an object, these lines light up yellow, starting with the ones furthest from the car icon, followed by the closer ones and the beeping noises until you're almost upon the object, at which point all of the lines flash red and the beeps flat-line, warning you to stop. Parsing the light show in the display, the driver can (sort of) deduce whether an object is directly in front of the car or to its immediate left or right and steer away from it.
This strategy only works(-ish) if you commit to an extremely slow speed, where the parking sensors can give adequate warning of an impending collision. Forget the jogging pace (and later, higher speeds) braved by Tom (Trevante Rhodes), the Jeep driver in Bird Box. We dragged on the brake pedal the entire exercise, slowing the Grand Cherokee from the barely walking pace it would achieve creeping along at idle. We never once touched the gas pedal. Threading through the course blind took incredible concentration, and even then, this author kept losing track of how much steering lock was currently applied and even which direction the car was pointed in after avoiding something. Several garbage cans were hit, and after traveling maybe 60 feet in what felt like minutes, the Jeep came to a rest against a curb. Dodging only a few obstacles had thrown us far off course and was disorienting.
A few features we could see helping this go more smoothly that the Jeep lacked include an ability to detect the direction of the vehicle in relation to the road and display as much on the on-screen map (our long-term Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid test van, which uses a newer version of the same Uconnect infotainment system, can do that). That'd help the driver keep better track of where they're pointed, but then, so too would an old-fashioned compass. More accurate parking sensors (or a BMW-style heat-map visual readout for the sensors' feeds) would be welcome, too. In reality, matching the Bird Box driver's performance would require sheer dumb luck or a comfort level higher than ours with inevitable collisions. Frankly, at the speeds we managed, a few bumps wouldn't do much damage (just reverse and try again!). So, navigating a car using only electronic alerts is possible, but also time consuming and very dangerous. So, like the idiotic Bird Box Challenge attempts floating around the internet, don't try it.
('You Might Also Like',)