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Cars Get Smarter

When Al Chambers, 69, entered the market for a new car, he specifically looked for one that offered enhanced safety features. He settled on a 2010 Mercury Milan that warns him if a car is in his blind spot with a orangeish light on both side-view mirrors, and beeps if an object is in his way as he backs out of a parking space. “It’s probably been very helpful in averting accidents,” says Chambers, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Some things strike me as more important than others. Safety issues are at the top of that list.”

Chambers is among a host of older Americans taking advantage of rapidly emerging technologies that make driving safer and easier. Last month at the New York International Auto Show, automakers showed a number of advancements created by efficiencies of scale in underlying technologies such as radar, imaging and sensors. Features developed just in the last two years, since the AARP Bulletin last reviewed new technology, also allow the car to have more control. Your auto is becoming your eyes and ears on the road, heading off potentially dangerous situations.

Many older Americans, recognizing the value of such features, have embraced them. The Automotive Emerging Technologies Study run by J.D. Power and Associates found that among consumers 60 and older, 75 percent were interested in blind-spot detection, because it can prevent a common type of accident. Half of that same group said they would pay more for extra safety features, compared with 46 percent of the general population.

Many technologies first become available in luxury cars because they’re expensive and manufacturers want to get more experience with them on the road. But once a technology evolves from this initial phase, it isn’t long before the new feature gets widely adopted, says Roderick MacKenzie, chief technology officer and vice president of programs for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

He points to blind-spot detection. It’s only been in the consumer vehicle market a couple of years and is now featured on the redesigned 2010 Ford Taurus. The goal of Ford, according to spokesman Alan Hall, is to “democratize the technology” across its lineup, making it available to everybody. “These are good technologies that enhance the driving experience and shouldn’t just be for luxury car buyers,” he says.

“The fact that Ford’s put it on a high-volume vehicle suggests it will be adopted widely in a relatively short period of time,” MacKenzie says. And as these technologies are offered more broadly, economies of scale will bring prices down. As this happens, drivers may very well find themselves in the proverbial passenger’s seat, while their cars guide the journey.

Are you ready to give up a little control in the name of safety? Look for the following features when you go shopping for your next automobile.

1. From passive to proactive

First generation blind-spot warning systems alert you to a hidden vehicle on your flank, but they leave the decision on how to respond to the driver.

Now, with newer systems, if you don’t act, the car can. In a system developed by Nissan, a warning light flashes in your side-view mirrors and a chime sounds if you try to steer into the path of a vehicle in an adjacent lane. If you insist on proceeding, the system will lightly apply the brakes to bring the vehicle back into the center of the lane. The driver also has the ability to override the system. This system was just introduced on the 2011 Infiniti M Vehicles, the M37 and M56, in March. It’s part of an optional technology package that costs $3,000. Lexus also has a version of that system.

What's 'distance control assist' and how can it help drivers? >>

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