Of all the cool gadgets car manufacturers now offer, few are as important as the latest safety features. In the same way that car companies have made our time behind the wheel more comfortable, convenient and entertaining (via features like heated and cooled seats, adaptive cruise control and iPod integration), they've also leveraged auto safety technology to make driving less risky and to differentiate their products.
Safety sells, but it can also earn customers for life, notes Paul V. Sheridan, a former product manager for Ford and Chrysler and an expert on auto safety. By constantly raising the bar in terms of auto safety technology — and saving lives and limbs — car companies win or lose long-term customer loyalty, Sheridan explains.
"A person that experiences the competent deployment of an automotive safety system that protects them from severe injury or death will not only survive as a repeat buyer, but will live to do sales and marketing for the automaker," Sheridan explains. "Typically, a very happy customer will inform five to eight others of their satisfaction, but if our customer was dissatisfied, upward of 20-24 people would be informed of the bad news. However, the dissatisfaction is even greater if the product fails due to a safety issue."
Highlighted below are the latest auto safety technologies that appeared on cars in the last six months or will debut in the coming months. If successful, these features will likely spread to other models — and one day become as common as seatbelts and airbags.
The 7 Series flagship has traditionally been BMW's technological tour de force, and the fully redesigned 2009 models feature several innovations, including Active Blind Spot Detection. In addition to giving visual warnings on the side mirrors like other blind spot monitoring systems, BMW's Active Blind Spot Detection also vibrates the steering wheel to warn drivers when they decide to change lanes anyway.
Several automakers offer sideview cameras to help drivers peek around corners at a blind intersection or see objects alongside a car when parking. But the new 7 Series adds a Multicamera System to display warnings of obstacles or oncoming traffic on the in-dash display or on the windshield via the head-up display.
Select BMW models have had night vision for several years, but its latest iteration — Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection — adds pedestrian detection to distinguish between a human and an animal, and it also shows the position and direction a pedestrian is heading. If a person approaches or crosses the car's path, a warning is issued on the in-dash monitor used to display night vision, and also pops up on a head-up display if the car is equipped with that option.
Availability: 2009 BMW 7 Series.
It's probably happened to you: You're backing out of an angled or perpendicular parking space and can't see if there's another vehicle barreling toward your car's rear end. You can back out slowly and hope there's nothing in your path — or wait to hear a car horn warning you not to proceed.
Chrysler's Cross Path Detection System uses radar sensors in the rear bumper to watch your back and determine whether vehicles are in your path. If they are, the system sounds an alarm and visual indicators flash in the side mirrors to warn you, depending from which side a vehicle is approaching.
Ford has added a blind spot warning system to some of its vehicles, and it's also available with Cross Traffic Alert. As with Chrysler's Cross Path Detection System, radar sensors in a vehicle's rear bumper watch for traffic from behind while a driver blindly backs out of a parking space. If traffic approaches as the vehicle is backing up, an audible alert sounds and a warning light flashes on the corresponding side mirror to indicate from which side the traffic is headed.
Ford also recently introduced MyKey, a system that allows parents to limit a vehicle's top speed and stereo system volume when an inexperienced driver is behind the wheel. Any of a car's keys can be programmed through the vehicle message center, and it also prevents safety features such as traction control from being turned off.
Availability: Cross Traffic Alert on the 2010 Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan and the 2010 Ford Taurus, and packaged with Ford's blind spot monitoring system; MyKey will be standard on all but the base model 2010 Ford Focus and Escape, as well as the 2010 Ford Taurus/SHO, Lincoln MKT and Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner hybrids.
Lots of cars have back-up cameras these days, and some (like the BMW 7 Series mentioned above) also have supplemental cameras to help a driver see other areas around a vehicle. But Infiniti is the only automaker now offering what it calls an Around View Monitor, which uses four wide-angle cameras, one on each side, to provide a 360-degree view around the vehicle.
Images from the camera are shown on an in-dash monitor, and users can select which camera image to display. Or a "bird's-eye" view can also be displayed to give an overhead perspective.
Mercedes-Benz has chosen its new 2010 E-Class to debut a host of new safety technologies, including Attention Assist. Standard on the 2010 E-Class coupe and sedan, the system analyzes various factors to determine whether a driver is too tired to operate a vehicle safely and "remembers" a driver's normal behavior behind the wheel to establish a baseline.
By tracking acceleration relative to steering angle, pedal use, road surface, wind conditions and even taking into consideration trip length and time of day, the system looks for signs of driver fatigue. If it decides the driver is too tired to continue, an indicator — a coffee-cup symbol — appears in the instrument cluster and an audible warning is issued.
As with BMW's update of its Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection, Mercedes' Night View Assist Plus adds the ability to spot pedestrians more easily. It does this by using software that distinguishes humans in the dark and highlights their presence on an in-dash display.
Availability: 2010 Mercedes- Benz E-Class this summer (although Night View Assist Plus isn't available on the E-Class coupe) and the 2010 S-Class later this year.
Volvo has built its reputation — and much of its marketing strategy — on safety. The company's latest innovations are in the area of "active" safety: The car takes control and makes a decision for the driver to avert an accident, as opposed to passive systems, such as seatbelts and airbags that kick in after an accident.
The company's City Safety Technology (CST), as its name implies, is designed to avoid fender-benders in stop-and-go urban driving. It uses an infrared laser sensor to monitor the distance to the vehicle in front of the CST-equipped car, and if it detects that the driver isn't slowing down fast enough to avoid a rear-end collision, the system activates the brakes to ostensibly stop the car in time. However, it only works at speeds less than 18 mph.
Availability: 2010 Volvo XC60 crossover.