By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
New cars are (literally) the vehicles for showcasing new technology. Take a look at some of the features you might find in your next new ride:
1) Around View Monitor
Infiniti (Nissan’s luxury car division) has developed an unusual “panorama view” back up camera that’s available on certain models, including the ’09 FX-series crossover wagon. It gives the driver a bird’s-eye view (as seen from above) of the perimeter around the entire car — not just what’s behind the rear bumper. Mini-cameras with wide-angle lenses are at the heart of the system.
Around View works with the vehicle in drive as well as reverse (at low speeds up to about 5 mph) to help make maneuvering in tightly confined spaces, such as enclosed and often poorly lit parking garages, easier as well as safer.
Caveat: The image displayed on the LCD monitor is slightly distorted, which can make accurately judging exactly how much room you’ve got to work with a less than a precise science. Always check twice before backing up — and proceed slowly.
This system, developed by Ford, is basically an electronic valet key for teenaged drivers. It allows parents to temporarily limit the potential top speed of the vehicle to 80 mph, as well as control other in-car functions, including the maximum volume of the stereo. It can also be programmed to emit warning chimes if a pre-set speed is exceeded or the occupants (including passengers) aren’t wearing their seat belts. An owner-programmable ignition key is the heart of the system.
MyKey will initially be standard in the 2010 Focus compact and Escape hybrid SUV — and reportedly will become standard in all Ford vehicles by 2012.
Caveat: Not a substitute for parental supervision of teen drivers, nor a substitute for proper training of teenaged drivers.
3) Automatic Braking/”Active” Collision Avoidance
Pioneered by Mercedes-Benz, this technology uses sonar or radar to detect objects in the vehicle’s path (or excessive closing speed between your vehicle and another car)) and can apply the brakes automatically, without any input from the driver. In Benz cars like the 2010 E and S-Class sedans, the system works with the cruise control to decelerate and accelerate the vehicle with the ebb and flow of traffic. It can bring the car to a complete stop and resume the vehicle’s speed when the way ahead is clear without the driver touching either brake or gas pedals.
The system is designed as both an emergency safety measure — applying the brakes in the event the driver fails to notice a potentially dangerous situation, such as suddenly stopped traffic ahead — and a convenience, since it allows “set and forget” cruise control operation. Lexus offers similar technology in its LS-series luxury sedan, as do BMW, Audi and others.
Caveat: Safe driving still requires full time and attention. Use this technology as a safety assist, not a replacement for attentive driving.
4) Lane Departure Warning
Infiniti pioneered this system — which emits a warning beep whenever the vehicle begins to stray over the double yellow line. It is intended to save people from the possible consequences of their own inadvertence and could potentially reduce accidents — especially those involving a car and a motorcycle (cars wandering into the opposing lane of traffic, particularly in a curve, are a leading cause of car-motorcycle crashes).
Several other manufacturers — including GM’s Cadillac and Buick divisions, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Audi — either offer or will offer the same basic system in some of their new cars.
Caveat: The system is not foolproof and can be annoying/distracting when it beeps unnecessarily, as when driving across parking lots or other areas where it’s necessary to drive over painted lines, as at intersections. The good news is these systems can be turned off manually by pushing a button.
5) Driver Alertness Monitor
Another feature developed by Mercedes-Benz, this system can detect a falling-asleep-at-the-wheel driver — and uses a voice warning to try to wake him up. Signs of a drowsy driver — decreased/inappropriate steering and throttle inputs — are noted by the car’s electronic sensors and after a certain point, an audible warning (“Attention Assist! Brake!”) is triggered.
Available on most of Mercedes’ higher-end models, including the new 2010 E-Class sedan. Volvo reportedly also will offer similar technology on some of its pending 2010 and 2011 models as well — including the S80 luxury sedan.
Caveat: It’s possible the sudden audible warning could startle an already half-asleep driver and cause him to jerk the wheel or jam on the brakes. Such situations should be avoided by getting plenty of rest before you drive, especially on a long trip — and stopping for a rest when you begin to feel tired. A good rule of thumb is a leg-stretch/bathroom break every 3-4 hours and an overnight stop after 8-10 hours behind the wheel.
6) Modern “Mileage Meters”
In the ’70s, during the last energy crunch, some cars had primitive fuel economy gauges that translated the engine’s vacuum signal into “high” and “low” gas mileage readings on a gauge in the instrument cluster. When you pushed down on the gas pedal and engine vacuum dropped, so did the mileage reading on the gauge. When you backed off the gas — and vacuum increased — so did the mileage reading.
Today’s gas-electric hybrids like the 2010 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius have similar-in-concept mileage meters — but the displays are typically digital and displayed on a flat-screen monitor. And the parameters are more expansive. The display will show you when, how much — and and in what proportion — the gas engine and its tandem electric motor/battery packs are being used. By watching the ebb and flow of power under various driving conditions, the display can teach you how to drive for best-possible fuel economy.
Caveat: Some hybrid owners have become so enamored of their mileage meters that they aren’t paying as much attention to traffic around them as they ought to — or they’re driving in a manner that obstructs the traffic around them, by accelerating much more slowly than other vehicles or coasting in order to keep the gauge’s readouts in the green. Gas mileage is important, but so is being courteous to fellow motorists.
7) Solar Cooling/Anti-Smog Air Conditioning
The 2010 Toyota Prius hybrid tries to save energy in lots of small ways that can add up to big overall savings. One such trick is to use a small, solar-powered ventilation fan to evacuate stagnant, hot air while the Prius is parked — so that the AC system won’t have to work as hard (and use as much energy) to cool the interior down when the owner returns.
Lexus, meanwhile, has developed a “smart” air conditioner that not only has a pollen/particulate filter (many late model luxury cars already have this feature) it can also detect when the outside air is smoggy, dusty or full of pollen — and when it does, it automatically puts the system into recirculation mode, preventing the outside air from entering the car’s cabin. The system goes back to normal operation when it senses the outside air quality has improved.
Caveat: None; these are both pretty sensible ideas with no apparent downsides.
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