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Cars Get Smarter

4. Asleep at the wheel

Anyone who’s driven down a lonely highway west of the Mississippi knows how difficult it can be to stay alert after hours on the road. Lexus’ driver-attention monitor uses a camera on the steering column to track facial movements and position. If a driver looks away for more than two seconds when there’s an obstacle ahead, the system triggers a three-stage warning system: A tone sounds, then the brakes pulse, and finally the brakes are applied. When that happens, the seat belts tighten to minimize the impacts of a collision. The system debuted in the LS600H but is being expanded to a few other Lexus models.

Mercedes’ Attention Assist uses a sophisticated algorithm that monitors steering outputs as a measure of drowsiness, while Volvo’s Driver Alert Control uses lane markings as the benchmark for determining drowsiness. Ford is using an entirely different method to keep drivers engaged, with multi-contoured seats in its 2010 Taurus. Using two switches, drivers can activate a gentle massage through the seat and back, encouraging blood flow to help prevent driver fatigue. Ford decided to launch this on its mainstream, flagship vehicle instead of its luxury line because Taurus owners tend to drive for longer stints, according to Steve Mitchell, the seat’s lead engineer. Ford plans to expand the technology, a $595 option, to other models starting next year, Mitchell says.

5. An easier descent

Toyota has developed the first factory-installed mobility seat in its 2011 Sienna, for passengers with physical disabilities. Push a button and the sliding door, located in the second row, opens and the seat turns 90 degrees, extends out of the vehicle on a track and onto the curb.

Awkward clambering in and out of the vehicle is over.

Julie Halpert, who has covered the automotive industry for two decades, lives in Michigan.

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