Nannies: good or bad?

As a driving coach, I get to ride in a lot of cars. Most of them these days have really impressive nannies, by which I mean the combination of anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control. These systems are mandatory on all new cars today in the US and EU and have been for a few years. The reason for this is that nannies save lives. While expert drivers may be able to control a car more effectively without such gadgets, I’d guess that 99.99% of drivers are safer with them. Personally, I’m glad all new street cars have nannies.

As a driving enthusiast and performance driver, what do nannies mean to you?

  • Faster – except for truly advanced drivers, nannies will see you lapping faster.
  • Safer – you’re much less likely to drive off track, spin, or hit something with nannies on.
  • Cheaper – you can read the sensors through the CAN bus and save thousands of dollars on telemetry.
  • Dumber – you won’t know how to control a car that doesn’t have nannies.

In spirit, nannies aren’t much different from an automatic transmission. If you spend all of your time in a car with automatic transmission, you’ll never learn how to operate a clutch or gearbox. How important is shifting to the driving experience? I don’t know. I’ve raced with an automatic transmission and it still felt like racing. Most engines these days automatically advance the ignition timing. Engines didn’t always do that. Have I lost an essential skill of driving because I don’t manually advance timing? I generally don’t think so, but some curmudgeon somewhere probably does.

As a coach, I love getting into a modern car because I know I’m much safer. Even though modern cars have way too much power, they also have nannies to prevent the car from spinning off course. I’ve had several experiences where I thought, “well, this is going to suck” only to have the nannies simply change the shape of the corner and leave me thinking “great car”. I rarely get into such situations and think “great driver” because the driver was the problem, not the solution. However, when I get into a car without nannies and the driver recovers from a difficult situation, all I have is praise for a driver who is learning to “explore the space”.

As a learning tool, bicycle training wheels are both a blessing and a curse. They save a lot of scabbed knees and possibly broken bones. But they have a fundamental flaw. When you’re riding a bike, you steer by leaning. Training wheels prevent that. I feel the same way about nannies. They prevent oversteer. However, if you ever want to be able to control oversteer, you’re going to have to experience it. Eventually, the training wheels have to come off if you’re going to learn how to really drive a car.

That said, if you’re going to your first track day, please leave the nannies on. Consider taking them off on your 3rd track day. However, if the car is your daily driver and replacing it would be financially painful, don’t do it. Leave the nannies on to protect yourself and your investment. An older Miata or 3-series is an ideal way to get a nanny-free experience. And if you brick it, it’s not that big a deal.

Of course, you can also get a nanny-free experience driving in simulation. It seems like I talk about the merits of sim racing every week. Well, that’s because it’s such an inexpensive way to train.

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