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Can Technology Save the Auto Industry?

Tuesday, 13 Jan 2009 | 3:21 PM ET

As the Detroit Auto Show gets underway, the Big Three American automakers will be attracting more scrutiny than ever after spending months in the news lobbying for and receiving billions in federal bailout money.

Wheels & Deals
Discussing whether alternatives can save the car industry, with CNBC's Carmen Wong Ulrich & Tyler Mathisen and Lauren Fix, The Car Care Council

The natural next question for these once-unassailable companies is: what can they do – what can they make – to convince consumers to come back to their products? Lauren Fix, auto expert and representative of the Car Care Council, shares some of the innovative new technologies on display at this year’s auto show. Would you buy a new car because of these features?

Turbo Diesel is the New Hybrid
The buzz in Detroit and beyond is still over electric and hybrids cars. But as gas prices have plummeted from their highs in July, it can now take anywhere from five to 10 years for the average consumer to pay off the cost differential of buying a hybrid over a conventional gasoline-powered car. But turbo diesel is a growing alternative, although it still carries a price premium. A clean-burning diesel engine puts out 95% less emissions and can save you $20 on each tank of gas. It’s all the rage in Europe and the technology is finally starting to get some attention in the states, with Audi and BMW both releasing diesel versions of their high-end sedans with others to follow. Unfortunately, diesel still has an image problem, Fix says, as most people still associate the technology with dirty, polluting trucks and buses. However, that is simply no longer the case and diesel is now a viable clean alternative to gasoline.

Mobile Commerce in GPS
A new twist on GPS allows drivers to purchase goods, make dinner reservations or pay for parking without leaving the car. If you’re worried about leaving your kids in the back seat while you run to grab dinner, this advancement could be right up your alley, Fix says. Visa and Johnson Controls have partnered to develop the technology, which includes security measures for your card number in case the device is stolen.

MyKey
Ford’s MyKey technology is designed to help parents encourage their teens to drive safer and more efficiently and increase seatbelt usage. The feature allows owners to program a special key that can limit the vehicle’s top speed and audio volume. For instance, you can program it so the radio won’t turn on until the seatbelt has been clicked.

>>Watch the Web Extra for an exclusive look at even more new technologies

Active Park Assist
This feature, available by the middle of the year on a handful of models from different automakers, is an improvement on Lexus’ foray into the realm of assisted parallel parking. Fix even testifies that the new technology is ‘perfect’ when it comes to automatically parking your car in a tight space, with the driver’s only responsibility to work the brake.

Whether it’s these breakthroughs or others, the automakers are faced with an enormous responsibility: to make vehicles that people want to drive, that are fuel efficient, and that will save us some money.

Can they deliver? We’ll find out.