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Luxury car safety features soon mainstream

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DETROIT -- Cameras that check around the car for pedestrians. Radar that stops you from drifting out of your lane. An engine able to turn off automatically at traffic lights to conserve fuel.

Technology that saves lives -- and fuel -- is getting better and cheaper. That means it's no longer confined to luxury brands such as Mercedes and Volvo. It's showing up in mainstream vehicles such as the Nissan Rogue and Ford Fusion.

"What we see today as slightly elitist technology is changing very, very fast," said Steven Lunn, chief operating officer for TRW Automotive, which supplies electronics and other parts to carmakers.

TRW says its newest radar is a quarter of the price of the model it sold 10 years ago. Its cameras are smaller and cheaper, too, making it easier to put multiple ones on each car.

High-tech options can still add a few thousand dollars to a vehicle's price, but those costs will come down as technology improves and automakers add them to more and more rides.

Here are some up-and-coming features drivers can look forward to:

Collision warning with automatic braking:

New cars have radar and camera systems that warn you, with beeping sounds, of a possible front-end crash. Some even stop the vehicle, or at least slow it enough to make a crash less severe. More sophisticated systems apply the brakes if a car veers off the road and heads towards a moving or fixed object. The systems are the outgrowth of adaptive cruise control, which helps keeps cars a safe distance from vehicles in front of them.

Mercedes, Honda, Toyota, Infiniti, Volvo and other brands offer automatic braking to avoid a collision; more automakers will follow soon. The systems seem to be working. David Zuby, the chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said collision-warning systems alone reduced crashes by seven per cent in a study of insurance claims for several thousand Mercedes vehicles with the technologies. Adding automatic braking doubled that benefit.

Advanced cameras:

Automotive cameras are showing up on more cars ahead of a government requirement to install backup cameras, which is expected by 2015. But with cameras getting smaller and cheaper, automakers aren't just putting them on the back of the car anymore. Honda has side cameras that come on automatically when a turn signal is employed, so drivers can spot obstacles while turning. Nissan's around-view monitor blends images from four cameras tucked in the mirrors and elsewhere around the car into a composite, bird's-eye view to help the driver back out of a parking spot. The system is available on a high-end Rogue and costs $6,000 more than the base model. Volvo and Subaru have front-mounted cameras that can apply brakes to avoid hitting pedestrians.

According to Mobileye, an Israeli maker of automotive cameras, car companies are adding cameras that can read wrong-way road signs, detect large animals such as deer, and even note the colours of traffic lights. All that technology is coming by 2015. The next wave? Nissan and TRW are working on a system to automatically steer the car away from an obstacle. Expect that by 2016.

Lane Centring:

A camera can follow the road and gently nudge a car -- using the brakes -- to stay in the centre of a lane. These systems -- dubbed Lane Keep Assist -- are available on most Mercedes-Benz vehicles as well as the Ford Fusion, Ford Explorer, Toyota Prius, Lexus GS and Lincoln MKZ. They aren't cheap. A combined lane-keeping and lane-centring system is a $1,200 option on the Fusion SE. Prius owners must spend $4,320 to get the system, packaged with cruise control and an entertainment system. Lane centring is an outgrowth of lane-keeping systems, which first appeared on commercial trucks a decade ago.

Adaptive headlights:

Headlights don't have to be round anymore to accommodate bulbs, so designers have more flexibility on where to put lights. And LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are letting automakers cram more brightness into smaller spaces. Audi, Mercedes, Acura, Mazda and others have so-called adaptive headlights that swivel in the direction the car is going to help drivers see around corners as they turn. Many cars now have high-beam lights that sense oncoming traffic and dim automatically.

Stop-start:

By 2025, new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. will have to average 23 kilometres per litre, up from the current 13 km/L. One feature will almost be a must-have: A "stop-start" device that shuts off the engine at a stop light and automatically turns it on when the driver releases the brake.

Alex Molinaroli, a vice-president with Johnson Controls Inc., which makes batteries that power the systems, estimates they raise gas mileage by a minimum of five per cent.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 B6

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