Automakers are Designing New Car Gadgets Focused on Driver Safety and Awareness
Safer Lane Changes is Just One of the Latest Trends to Include Advanced Gadgets in New SUV Models
Every new car season brings with it a dazzling assortment of
high-tech gadgets and an equally formidable barrage of hype aimed at romancing you into this year's model.
What's hot and what's hype? We posed that question to Paul Duchene, a national automotive writer based in Portland, Ore.
"There are a lot of gizmos this year and some of them are good, too," he says. "One of the reasons is there are a lot of new models and a whole bunch of updates this year, including
the Nissan 350Z, Mazda's RX-8 and BMW's Z4 and 745i, the car some critics have informally dubbed 'the quarter to eight.'"
Let's put the pedal to the metal and cruise some of this year's hottest new gadgets:
Intelligent cruise control: This lends new dimension to the term "keeping up with the Joneses." Previously, cruise control was a simple proposition: You set your speed and your car
maintained it until you tapped the brake or manually turned it off. Infiniti's new wrinkle uses a laser beam to measure the distance between you and the vehicle ahead and maintains a preset distance
until you disengage it. The upside is you can't tailgate. The downside depends on the driving skills of the guy in front of you.
Directional stability: This is a little like having your mother-in-law in the back seat, only quieter. "You go into a corner too hard and the car basically figures out that it's about to
change direction from where you want it to go and will selectively apply, say, a rear brake on one side just to keep it going in the line that it senses it's pointed," says Duchene. And he
tested it. Hard. "It really works, way past the point that it makes sense."
Mouse control: It had to happen and finally does with BMW's 7 series. That dial-shaped gizmo where a stick shift would normally reside is called iDrive and it controls the heat, air, audio level
and other cabin-related functions. This gives you a sleek, button-free dashboard. Beginners, however, need to look at the in-dash display to use it.
Voice-recognition system: Sure, we all talk, even scream, at our cars on occasion. Now Infiniti presents one that finally listens. The Q45 voice recognition system allows you to change CDs, adjust
the temperature, access your GPS navigation system or make a hands-free cell phone call, all through voice command. The system understands 50,000 words in 150 dialects and even learns the sound
of your voice. Hal, is that you?
Run-flat tires: No matter how high-tech your ride, there are four things all cars have in common, and they still go flat from time to time. Run-flat tires don't prevent flats, but they will get
you to a repair shop. "When you run over a nail and the tire goes flat, if you keep it under 30 miles per hour, it will get you someplace where you can change it," Duchene explains. "Part
of the reason they can do it is that performance tires are much lower profile and deform much less, so you can make stiffer sidewalls."
Mobile entertainment: New minivans approximate all the comforts of home: Pop-down DVD screens, earphone ports, even a remote control to fight over. That takes care of the kids; now what about
Mom and Dad? How about coast-to-coast, commercial-free satellite radio? For the cost of a radio receiver ($300 and up) and service (less than $15 a month), you can receive 70 channels of commercial-free
music and 40 channels of news, talk, sports and entertainment programming from such providers as XM and Sirius.
It sure beats choruses of, "Are we there yet?"
Limp-home mode: How smart is the Cadillac Northstar engine? If you blow a radiator hose, the Northstar automatically reverts to limp-home mode, shutting the gas supply off in several cylinders
and turning the engine into a quasi-air cool system. You won't set any land speed records, but your engine will survive the damage you unwittingly might have done to it.
DVD navigation: Because of the limited data storage capacity of earlier onboard GPS satellite-navigation systems, you had to reinstall a different CD of map displays if you wanted to travel to
other parts of the country. With the new DVD-based systems, all of North America is now your oyster. Does it play movies, too? Duchene chuckles: "The Lexus system has the ability to play movie
DVDs on its screen, but it won't play if you're in gear, so you can't be watching a movie while you're driving down the road." We really didn't think so, but had to ask.
Automatic braking: Remember your mother-in-law in the back seat? Here's a feature that cleverly simulates the effect of her panicked stranglehold on you in a traffic crisis. "There are brake
systems now that have a brains-override thing where they figure you're not braking hard enough for what's going on and will actually add power to the brakes," Duchene says. Easier on the esophagus,
Head restraint, side curtains and pre-tensioners: Luxury cars feature all the safety money can buy. In addition to standard forward and side airbags, many models now come with inflatable head-restraint
bands along the top of the windshield and inflatable side window curtains. The Lexus system automatically cinches up your seat belt with pre-tensioners just milliseconds before impact. Cadillac's
Escalade SUV uses sensors to analyze the size and weight of front-seat passengers and automatically deactivates the front air bag if it detects a child or rear-facing child seat riding shotgun. "Though
not yet on the market, the car companies are developing a 'catcher's mitt' seat that, if things go wrong, just kind of grabs you and holds you in place," says Duchene.
Back-up assistance: If parallel parking is not your strong suit, you'll be pleased to hear about a couple systems designed to give you a better look at your rear end. GM's Ultrasonic Rear Parking
Assistant uses four sensors to triangulate the position of objects behind you and guides you with both an audible chime and LED lights at the back window. Infiniti's RearView Monitor goes one step
further and actually displays on the dashboard monitor a full-color video from a rear-mounted mini-cam. Now all you've got to do is find a parking space.
Automatic accident reporting: In the event of an accident, your car can now phone for help, even if you can't. "Some of this stuff now, if you have a crash, the car calls home and 911 and
says, 'I've been hurt,'" Duchene says. "But that has its drawbacks. As one of my friends pointed out, sometimes when you make a mistake, you could use about 20 minutes to get away."