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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.

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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.

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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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