I had a ball at the Mercedes Advanced Driving Academy this week but, as I thought about it, they took a ton of avoidable risks that likely contributed to the one accident we had and the loss of a $70K engine. It continues to fascinate me how the car companies—that are on the edge of being displaced by computer companies and self-driving cars–don’t seem to understand the technology available to them to not only improve their cars, but improve their customer relationships and loyalty, and—in this case—their affinity programs. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend the course as is—it is actually a great value and I had a ball. I also expect that the AMG Advanced Driving Academy isn’t alone with the problems I observed but this should serve as a heads up that there are better ways to do this before someone gets killed or crippled.
The AMG Advanced Driving course is a two-day event on weekends done all over the world. I took it at the storied Laguna Seca race course near Monterey, California. It is a beautiful technical course which is actually pretty forgiving and gives a nice mix of high speed straights, mixed corners, and unusually challenging pit lane exits (which they likely should fix).
You are first put into randomly selected teams, which, I expect is more to make the gymkhana competition fair but often creates a wide skill gap in the groups which increases the danger for both the experienced and inexperienced drivers. Someone must have forgotten that we don’t take classes like this for the trophies but to learn and advance, and by not putting us into skill level grouping the training wasn’t optimized.
We are then taken through a series of exercises over two days. These consist of slalom training, gymkhana training, drift training, and finally race training on the main track. It is comprehensive, but there is no sense of any quality measurement which focuses on how much improvement either the students make during the course (everyone passes unless they get kicked out) or improvement for the course itself. Thus segments that didn’t work well, like the gymkhana and drift training segments, wouldn’t be improved over time and they needed work.
One obvious improvement to put the instructors in the cars with the students from time to time so they could actually see what the student is doing wrong. I’ve had race coaching in the past and this was the only time the instructor never rode with the student when they were driving. Granted, that can be scary but, often this is the only way to tell if the student is actually doing things right. In one of the segments—the drift segment—it would have helped a great deal particularly if the car, like some drivers training cars, had twin controls. Drifting is a feel thing, and the more help you can get to achieve the necessary “feel” the more you’d progress.
There were a number of key areas where technology could have vastly improved the experience. First the use of simulators where students can practice on their own and work on things that they either aren’t getting or just want to improve. Even professional drivers use simulators now because you can put hundreds of hours in on them for a tiny fraction of what a car would cost to run on the track.
- Central telematics. This is used on race cars so the pit boss and crew can monitor how the car and driver are doing. Often the instructor is out on the track leading the drivers he or she is training and not in a position to observe every individual student. But an operator centrally located could monitor the telematics on the car and both identify if there is a problem with the car before someone got hurt and provide feedback on recurring errors or immediately identify unsafe practices (like slowing down on a lead/follow lap due to fear or because the driver wants to drive excessively fast to catch up).
- Hands-free communications. This was perhaps the biggest red flag I saw. The instructors were having to juggle several two-way radios while also driving their cars at speed; often with a passenger in the car asking questions. This means they were not only driving highly distracted but with one hand and not using the required 10-2 hand positioning on the wheel but they weren’t watching where they were going all the time. One was actually driving with his palm in the middle of the wheel. A sudden flat, a tire going off the track, or any kind of unplanned obstacle could not only have led to the injury or death of the instructor but to that of one or more students. It is ill-advised for street drivers to drive distracted and with one hand while operating phones or any other personal device, for a race car driver to do this is inexcusable. And yet I observed this to be universal not because the drivers were bad drivers, but because they didn’t have a choice. That’s unacceptable.
Finally, there was no effort to profile the drivers in order to identify those that were over their head, or that might freeze up at a critical moment. The only qualifying question seemed to be if you’d ever taken a course before or driven on a race track. At Hooked On Driving events I’ve seen people argue they have advanced race experience even though the only track they’ve ever raced on was on an X Box. I saw several students that shouldn’t have been on a race track as they were accidents waiting to happen. Accident prevention shouldn’t be about assigning blame it should be about preventing the accident in the first place.
Wrapping Up: Why It Is Critical to Have Program Reviews
Now, I did have a great time and—for an experienced track day driver–I’d recommend this class. But, it could be made both more effective and far safer. I expect it has been pretty static for a long time. What makes the program work are some great instructors, but with the right application of technology, focused quality metrics, and regular reviews (probably by folks more experienced than I am) it could be made better, and more importantly, far safer than it is.
It really doesn’t matter how good your people are, if you don’t have regular independent reviews or strong quality focused metrics they won’t improve and safety problems—like the overly distracted instructors–won’t be flagged until after someone dies and then not only will lives be lost, but a few careers will be lost as well. If you want to avoid that outcome, assure that your programs have regular independent reviews, you have a process to improve quality, and that the program’s goals remain aligned with the company’s.