Author Jim Gorzelany
HIS IS NOT AN EXAGGERATION: The best cars on the road today pack in more intelligent electronics than NASA employed to send man into space. They offer real-time traffic reports, hands-free chatting, collision avoidance alerts, and internet access for your laptop (which is, arguably, not such a great idea). They can also tap into your brain: If a driver is falling asleep or otherwise impaired, the car knows. Some models literally take hold of the wheel if they determine a collision is imminent. They’ll do just about everything but pay your parking tickets.
“Manufacturers are packing everything into cars: radar, cameras, lasers and GPS navigation systems,” says Jeff Rupp, manager of Active Safety, Research and Advanced Engineering for Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. It’s a marketing bonanza, but the technological advances are presenting auto makers with a challenge: making driving safer and more enjoyable without providing too much distraction from the task at hand.
This year, Ford rolled out the new SIRIUS Travel Link service, a road warrior’s information arsenal: Using SIRIUS satellite radio, STL spits out real-time weather and traffic updates, sports scores, and pump prices at nearby gas stations. Meanwhile, BMW has started integrating Google Maps into its 1- and 3-Series navigation system. Need a restaurant, mechanic, supermarket, cinema or a deep-tissue massage and sauna? Tap on the Bimmer’s route guidance system screen and it’ll get you there pronto, or slip that glowing Bluetooth Jawbone into your ear and place a hands-free call. New-model Chryslers, Dodges and Jeeps have “uconnect web,” which turns your ride into a rolling Internet hot spot.
All this innovation is set to revolutionize the way we drive. But when you’re humming along a busy Interstate at 70 mph, at what point do you reach connectivity overload? Given that talking on a cellphone is already illegal in some states, the proposed idea of dashboard-mounted PCs—complete with internet and email capability—seems slightly insane. “I’m still not sold on the idea of a driver having full access to the internet,” says Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies at the research firm J.D. Power and Associates. “From a legal standpoint—and a driver distraction standpoint—I just don’t see it happening.”
But the cutting edge isn’t just about connecting to the web. Some new tech makes driving remarkably easy. For example, “Adaptive” cruise control systems in Lexus, Jaguar and other models maintain a set distance from the car ahead, speeding up and slowing down to match it. Mercedes-Benz offers the most advanced version: While other systems give control back to the driver under a certain speed, Merc’s Distronic Plus system stays engaged in the stop-and-go crawl of highway traffic.
Problem parallel parkers will appreciate Ford’s much-improved Active Park Assist in the 2010 Lincoln MKS sedan and MKT crossover, which uses ultrasonic sensors and electronic power steering to automatically guide the vehicle into a parking space. All an operator needs to do is work the gas and brake pedals—and feed the meter. “In congested urban locations, Active Park Assist is a godsend for some people—like my wife—who cannot parallel park,” says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Group, an automotive research firm.
The niftiest new technology is in the area of safety. Consider widely used “collision mitigation systems,” which engage when they sense that a crash is imminent. They then pump the brakes, tighten the seat belts, and rapidly close the sunroof and windows. European engineers are developing a next-generation version with reinforcing metal bars in the passenger compartment that slide into place prior to impact.
Lexus and Mercedes take it a step further. The new Lexus LS 600 hL hybrid sedan’s Advanced Pre-Collision System helps a driver avoid hitting obstacles—especially pedestrians—in the vehicle’s path by monitoring both the road ahead and the driver’s face with video cameras. If the system thinks the driver is distracted because, say, he’s asleep, or chatting dejectedly with his broker, and simultaneously detects an object ahead, it will sound an alarm and automatically engage the brakes. Mercedes’ Attention Assist system scrutinizes the driver’s steering inputs and judges whether the driver is fatigued or otherwise “impaired.” It then illuminates a coffee cup icon on the dash and advises him or her to take a break.
Meanwhile, Volvo’s accident avoidance system, Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep Fatigue is a factor in more than 40 percent of fatal accidents in the United States. Mercedes has developed a brilliant Attention Assist system that constantly monitors the drivers behavior, particularly how the driver turns the wheel. Once it establishes a driver’s “normal” behavior, the computer system looks for deviations. For instance, as a driver tires, he or she tends to turn slowly then jerk the wheel to correct.
If the car catches you dozing, it scolds you with an alarm and a coffee cup glows on the dashboard.
City Safety, focuses on fender benders at speeds up to 18 mph. If the car thinks the driver isn’t reacting to something in its path, it jams on the brakes. Nissan’s Lane Departure Prevention technology not only beeps if the car drifts across highway lane markers, it applies brakes to one or more of the wheels to guide it back on the road.
Understandably, most motorists are wary of ceding control to a machine. After all, we’ve seen The Terminator. “When technologies take the helm and steer the vehicle, we’re infringing on drivers’ comfort zones,” notes Stephen Lovett, Director of the Automotive and Transportation Research with the market research firm Harris Interactive. “Which is the exact opposite of the technology’s intent.”
Call it the HAL effect—after that recalcitrant computer in the dystopian classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s hard not to worry what might happen if the machine makes a mistake. And just wait until the legal system gets involved. “The biggest obstacle I see to widespread availability of driver assistance systems could be litigation,” says J.D. Power’s Marshall. “It’s just a matter of time before one of these systems fails, and then it will fall into the hands of the lawyers.”
It’s enough to make you go out and buy a bike. Getting around may require a bit of exertion, but at least the thing knows who’s boss.