Tech Takes on Auto Safety

Carmakers are offering a variety of new features, from headlights that trace the path of a curve to cruise control that keeps its distance

Cars that think and react faster than drivers will be inherently safer. That seems to be the strategy among some auto makers as they roll out new safety features in 2006 and 2007 models headed to showrooms, including automatic braking systems, headlights that illuminate curves and turns, and cameras that indicate vehicles entering another vehicle's blind spots.

Some of the features are being added to cars at no additional cost, while others are available only as part of pricey option packages.

The search for quick-reacting safety features began more than two decades ago with advances in computer technology and the introduction of ABS (the anti-lock brake system). ABS helps prevent a vehicle from skidding out of control when the driver slams the brake, and it has become standard on most vehicles offered for sale today.


  The most promising new safety technologies are those that actually take over a vehicle in an impending collision, says Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But auto makers say they aren't out to remove control of the vehicle from the driver during a collision. The car will take action only if the driver doesn't do anything.

"The driver will always be in control," says Priya Prasad, a Ford (F) technical fellow in safety research and development. "If the driver is taking some type of evasive action, for instance if they want to accelerate, this system isn't going to override. But if the driver is really not taking action and the system detects an imminent threat of accident or collision, then it will go to high deceleration, where the maximum power of the brakes will be applied at that time."

Among the new features on the current crop of automobiles:

Smarter Cruise Control: "Adaptive cruise control" is available on models offered by several manufacturers, including BMW, Cadillac, Lexus, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volkswagen, and other luxury brands. Adaptive cruise control uses radar sensors mounted in the front of the vehicle to monitor the distance between it and the car in front. If the distance between the two begins to shorten, adaptive cruise control slows the vehicle and returns it to the designated cruise speed when the distance between the cars lengthens.

In the redesigned 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class -- set to go on sale in spring, 2006 -- the German auto maker known for innovative technology has upgraded Distronic, the Mercedes version of adaptive cruise control, to Distronic Plus.

Distronic Plus not only slows the vehicle but also brings the car to a complete stop if necessary. And it reaccelerates the car when traffic starts moving and stops it again, as needed, in stop-and-go traffic. The driver virtually has to do nothing except guide the vehicle. Distronic is a $3,100 option on the 2006 S-Class. Pricing for the 2007 version of Distronic Plus is not available yet.

A similar system called Dynamic Radar Cruise Control is available on the 2006 Lexus LS430 sedan, but it's a part of a $13,570 ultra-luxury package, which includes a rear-mounted camera to show the driver to see what's behind the car. The Lexus system doesn't stop the vehicle.

Also, Should the Mercedes S-Class become involved in a disastrous crash that includes a rollover, the vehicle responds quickly to protect the occupants. When electronic monitors sense a potential accident, an occupant protection system called Pre-Safe tightens seat-belts, inflates support cushions in the seats, and automatically closes open windows and the sunroof, providing increased protection for the driver and occupants. That's in addition to traditional air-bag deployment.

Better Lights: Another safety feature becoming more widely available on 2006 and 2007 models is adaptive headlights. These increase road lighting as a vehicle rounds a curve. The 2006 Volkswagen Passat features adaptive headlights that swivel the light bulb to increase lighting in a curve. Lexus, Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, Land Rover, and Infiniti models also feature adaptive headlights for 2006.

Ford takes a different approach with its Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS) . It uses additional bulbs that light up when the vehicle enters the curve and then shut off when back on a straight road. Ford is also introducing seatbelts with inflatable air bags aimed at reducing head and neck injuries in a crash.

More auto makers, including BMW and Mercedes, are upgrading the almost 20-year-old trunk-lid-mounted brake light that illuminates when the brakes are applied. Instead of merely lighting up, the advanced brake lights increase the intensity of the light when the brakes are applied with greater force, indicating a quick or emergency stop.

Watching Blind Spots: Volvo, widely recognized for safety innovations, offers the Blind Spot Information System on some 2006 models, including the V70 wagon and S60 sedan. Cameras mounted on each side mirror look out at blind spots on the vehicle and alert the driver with a flashing light when an approaching vehicle has entered the blind spot. It's a $500 option.

Lane and Stability Control: Infiniti is offering a lane-departure warning system on the FX sport-utility vehicle and M45 sedan that alerts the driver with a beep when the vehicle begins to drift outside the lane. The technology uses a camera mounted on the rearview mirror inside the vehicle to monitor lane markings. The technology costs about $5,900 and is packaged with other options.

And with increased concern about rollover accidents, more auto makers are offering electronic stability control as standard equipment on their SUVs, with about two-thirds of SUV models in 2006 getting it as standard, according to the Insurance Institute.

Safety advocates call the latest technologies promising but still in need of real-world tests to determine their effectiveness. "A lot depends on how acceptable the technology will be to people," says Lund. Safety features that give audible warnings -- such as beeps or chimes when a vehicle drifts out of the lane or another vehicle enters a blind spot -- may actually irritate drivers if false alarms are common, he says.

Even so, Lund says, studies have shown that rumble strips embedded into the side of the road that warn a driver that the car is about to leave the pavement help prevent accidents. That shows promise for audible warnings about lane departures, he says.

If these gizmos carry through on their promises, it could mean safer driving for everyone.

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