Is technology making us worse 4WDers?

ByUnsealed 4X4June 21, 2018
Is technology making us worse 4WDers?

Ignorance is not always bliss

Most reasonable people would agree that technological advancements have made day-to-day life easier on numerous fronts. Automation, in particular, has reduced human interaction with devices, products and systems to the point where the simple act of pushing a button results in a desired outcome with no understanding of the process in between required whatsoever.


When the outcome is not what we had envisaged, ignorance (and ambivalence toward instruction manuals) usually sees us pushing different buttons until we finally achieve the result we are after. With mechanical systems becoming a thing of the past so too, it seems, is our understanding of how these systems work and how an automated system works to replace it.

Manually engaging hubs are as much a part of yesterday as the Sony Walkman or Atari 2600 while mechanical transfer cases are slowly being replaced by terrain response systems. Advancements meant to make vehicles more drivable and help us go further, higher and faster may also be having us reaching for the recovery gear more often.

The fastest growing segment of the new vehicle market is seeing many more of us hitting the sand, rocks, dirt and mud to explore places near and far. Time honoured traditions of “learning one’s craft” in an old school truck, where understanding mechanical systems, how a vehicle behaves in certain terrain and selection of appropriate driving lines were paramount to safe progress, are dying hard. For many folk, their introduction to four-wheel driving comes via fancy buttons and dials presented on the console or dash of their particular vehicle, usually accompanied by a picture, icon or other graphic loosely representing what said button or dial is used for. This all seems quite reasonable in theory but in practice it is not always the case. Car salesman tick pro-former boxes on their handover sheet at the dealership on delivery day, most of the time, with little understanding of a vehicle’s complex systems themselves let alone the ability to properly educate the new owner on the correct use of these systems. It could be said that this does nothing to prepare a novice for the world of off-road adventuring. After all, there is more to four-wheel driving than matching an icon beside a dial with the sight that greets you through the windscreen of your vehicle.

Short levers vs dials

Traditionally, a four-wheel drive vehicle relied on a mechanical transfer case with selection of 4H and 4L beyond that of regular high range 2WD/RWD to provide the reduction in gearing required for increased traction and forward momentum. This was simple to understand and even easier to associate with if you use the analogy of a geared bicycle. If further information was required, a quick glance at the manufacturer’s specifications would show these reduced ratios as a numerical value, something that was easy to reference and compare between vehicle makes and models.

This might be all well and good but what happens when I push this button??

A terrain response type system will present the driver with multiple driving modes or options – typically mud, sand, rocks and snow. Should you venture off the black top onto your favourite beach you could be forgiven for thinking that dialling in sand mode would be the appropriate preparation for the task at hand but this thinking can be innocently naïve. Sand exists in many forms from the ‘highway’ hard pack of low tide to the powder-like sands of the many inland tracks and beach cuttings. No one gear or ratio can be relied upon in all situations in sand with H4 being the safe bet for the majority of situations and L4 the correct choice for the soft stuff. Notwithstanding this, gear and ratio selection should be made sympathetic to the vehicle to reduce unnecessary strain on engines, transmissions and running gear. A deeper understanding of sand mode is required to be able to associate this system with a traditional ratio and whether this mode is even appropriate for the particular type of sand driving being undertaken at the time.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, rock mode may in fact provide the lower ratio required to successfully tackle this terrain. Rock mode with the lower ratios required to slowly and safely negotiate extreme terrain with precise throttle control is most closely associated with a typical L4 ratio arrangement and is far more likely to provide the low gearing and maximum traction required in this situation.

This example is only one of a number of modern automated systems being rolled out through several recently released new vehicle models. CRAWL, All Terrain Progress Control, Gradient Release Control, Descent Assist, the list goes on. Each system has a clear and distinct benefit for the driver but only where each is clearly understood.

Hitting the books

The understanding part is where most of us get caught out. It is true that one doesn’t know what they don’t know but you can never start finding out without taking some initial steps. Having only recently read the owner’s manual for my GU Patrol, a vehicle that has largely gone unchanged for around 18 years, I was surprised at just how much I didn’t know. The onus is on us as four-wheel drive vehicle owners to educate ourselves on the nuances of our particular vehicles. Owner’s manuals, magazines, vehicle specific forums and the like are all fantastic sources of information for this purpose. If complacency breeds contempt then contempt surely results in ‘misadventure’, which is something we should all be trying to avoid. Part of any four-wheel drive education should include some time spent with a head in the books.

As with anything in life, technological advancements in automation and electronics are a given, as is their infiltration into the four-wheel drive world. Those that are ‘on board’ with it tend to drive Discos and those who aren’t lean toward GU Patrols (like me) but whatever your stance, the times are a-changing and it is up to us to keep pace with them.