The market may be slow but new technologies for vehicles are appearing at a blistering pace.
Most are in the realm of safety, but some gadgets are pure convenience. Typically, innovative features from the manufacturers are offered on higher-end cars as options and eventually trickle down to less expensive vehicles as cost declines, awareness increases and demand grows.
Equipment and features the public takes for granted today -- electric ignition, automatic windshield wipers, power steering, airbags, cruise control and many more -- began life as unexpected advances that dazzled the public. When GM introduced the first automatic transmission -- its Hydra-Matic Drive -- in the 1940 Oldsmobile, it was a $57 option and more of a curiosity than a "gotta-have" feature. Today automatic transmissions have advanced to the point of providing as many as eight forward gears, driver-shift options, computerized driver-adaptable shifting and different shifting modes, such as "sport," "touring" and "snow." But in 1940, not stirring the transmission yourself was a radical concept and only well-heeled risk takers ponied up the extra cash for the new technology.
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Today's "cutting edge" is tomorrow's "commonplace." Here is a collection of technologies already offered that could be mainstream just a year or two from now.
Backing out of a parking space in a busy lot can be an adventure. Although rear-pointing radar has been around for a few years alerting drivers to unseen objects immediately behind them -- a fence, wall, tree or another vehicle -- new radar technology searches for approaching cross traffic. When it "sees" traffic approaching while you're backing up, it sounds an alarm. Chrysler's version is available in its minivans and is called Cross Path Detection System. It includes visual indicators in the outboard mirrors. Ford's system is called Cross Traffic Alert. Offered in the just-released 2010 Fusion and Mercury Milan, it also has outboard mirror alarm indicators.
Night vision with pedestrian detection
Although night vision in vehicles isn't a new technology -- Cadillac offered it in 2000 -- the Mercedes-Benz updated version is called Night View Assist Plus. Unlike the Night View Assist, which has been available in the S-Class since 2005, the new system pinpoints pedestrians, highlighting them on a dashboard display. It's offered in the 2010 E-Class in showrooms late this spring. BMW has a similar system with a pedestrian identifier that also shows the direction the pedestrian is moving. As the distance closes between pedestrian and vehicle, a warning appears on the night vision monitor as well as the head-up display on the windshield if so equipped. BMW offers this system on the 2009 7 Series.
Automatic high-beam control
In the redesigned RX, Lexus offers a system that automatically illuminates and dims the high-beam headlights in relation to approaching traffic. A camera mounted on the rearview mirror detects when the vehicle is closing in on oncoming traffic, as well as vehicles ahead traveling in the same direction, and disengages the high beams. Mercedes-Benz takes the technology one step further with its Adaptive Highbeam Assist. Also found in the new E-Class, it doesn't merely switch between low and high beams, but reacts by gradually increasing or lowering the light distribution based on the distance of approaching traffic. It also dims the high beams for sharp turns and then re-engages the high beams if there is no approaching traffic once the turn is completed.