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Are Cars Getting Too Smart?

An industry debates new auto technology

The automobile industry is pouring out new technologies, many borrowed from the military and the aeronautical industry, faster than researchers can evaluate them, says Anne T. McCartt, senior researcher for IIHS. "It's still a question mark what features really work," she says. "The best features are invisible — you don't even know they are there — like side air bags, adaptive cruise control and electronic stability control, which prevents the car from rolling over on a steep curve or icy road."

And just over the horizon, experts say, are cars equipped with medical monitoring devices to check the driver's heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. Even more promising are cars that use wireless communication to "talk" to each other and to roadside signals to prevent collisions. In fact, several major auto manufacturers are cooperating on developing such a "connected car."

"The connected car is the next major step in the evolution of car safety, on a par with seat belts, air bags and electronic stability control," says Scott Belcher, CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. Vehicles will detect traffic jams, slippery conditions or accidents far down the road, allowing the driver to take corrective action. If the driver fails to respond, the car will brake and prevent a crash, similar to the way airplanes avoid midair collisions. The driver of a connected car, unlike the operator of the self-driving Google robotic car now being tested, retains some control behind the wheel. By 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation expects to make a decision on whether to mandate connected-car technology in future models. The DOT estimates that a fleet of connected cars could help drivers avoid 80 percent of potential crashes. NHTSA's Strickland says, "That's a great safety opportunity that has real promise."

For now, though, available advanced safety features are often standard in $50,000-and-up luxury cars or as an add-on to a standard model, says MIT's Reimer. "Since the mid-1980s, auto manufacturers have made monumental strides protecting occupants in a crash by designing cars to absorb the impact," he says. "Now the industry is making incredible strides in preventing crashes in the first place."

Elizabeth Pope contributes to the Bulletin from Portland, Maine.

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