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Cars Get Smarter

Many manufacturers also have systems to automatically apply the brakes if your car is following another too closely. Nissan calls it Distance Control Assist; Volvo calls it Collision Avoidance. BMW’s system, introduced in the 2008 5 Series, also brings the car to a complete stop if you’re approaching a traffic jam, and Audi uses that type of system in its new A8. Tapping the gas pedal resumes the car’s original speed.

2. Getting a better view

A new pedestrian detection system by Volvo uses both forward-looking radar and a camera mounted behind the rear-view mirror to spot pedestrians in the driver’s path. If it determines there’s a problem, it will warn the driver with an audible signal and project a red light on the windshield. If the driver doesn’t brake and the car senses an imminent collision, it will brake automatically.

The system will be launched on Volvo’s S60 this fall. Volvo’s senior technical adviser, Thomas Broberg, says it can prevent collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles at speeds up to 22 miles an hour, and can reduce the impact at higher speeds. BMW launched Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection on its 2009 7 Series, and it’s now offered on the 2010 Gran Turismo. It scans 1,000 feet down the road—beyond what your headlights illuminate—and flashes a yellow warning onto the windshield if something is in the vehicle’s path. Audi’s system detects pedestrians with infrared imaging, warning you with a tone, and also displays on the instrument cluster the feed from a night-vision camera.

3. Bracing for a crash

A large number of engineering efforts have concentrated on avoiding accidents, especially those that occur at intersections. This is good news for older drivers, whose likelihood of crashing at an intersection increases with age, starting between 50 and 54, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Crash avoidance technologies “have a lot of promise,” said Anne McCartt, IIHS’s senior vice president for research. McCartt says intersections pose the biggest challenge for older drivers, because they present a more complicated set of variables than, say, highway driving. Using technology to navigate intersections safely will take integration among cameras, sensors and receivers in the traffic signals themselves.

For now, this technology is focused on minimizing the effects of crashes in general. Audi’s Pre-Sense, due this fall on its 2011 A8, for instance, prepares the car for a potential accident. If the stability control sensors determine the car is in a skid, the technology automatically brings seat backs forward, closes the windows and sunroof to protect the passengers and tightens the seat belts. Mercedes introduced a similar system in 2002 called PRE-SAFE, which puts the car’s interior settings in a position to best withstand a crash as a vehicle closes in on the car ahead. If the driver disregards an audible warning 1.6 seconds before projected impact, seats automatically adjust to the best position to withstand air bag deployment. The system is standard on all V12 models; in others, it’s offered as part of a driver assistance package for $2,000.

Which tools may help prevent falling asleep at the wheel? >>

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