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New Warning Systems Save Drivers From Themselves

(updated May 5th, 2009)

We're not quite to the era of the driverless car yet. But in an increasing number of today's luxury vehicles, a combination of bells, whistles, beeps, rumbles and blinking lights — informed and powered by state-of-the-art electronic safety devices — can help you maneuver better, drive more confidently and even avoid accidents.

At around $2,000 or more per option, you can load up your luxury vehicle with systems that will sound a warning when you're leaving your lane or even prevent you from doing so. The idea is to keep you from careening with a vehicle in your blind spot, help you avoid backing into something behind you, prevent you from tailgating and even let you know that you seem distracted from the driving task at hand.

Soon, these functions will be joined by others. Volvo, for example, introduced City Safety on the 2009 XC60 which promises to autopilot the car during stop-and-go, low-speed driving. And the entire industry will be launching new wireless technology called vehicle-to-vehicle communication to help avoid chain accidents and other troubles by advising you of specific traffic conditions a few hundred feet or even a quarter-mile ahead of you, using data from other vehicles with the same technology.

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"This will become an industry standard," said Don Grimm, senior researcher for General Motors, a leader in this field. "It'll create some real cost advantages and could proliferate down to midsize and economy vehicles."

The purpose of these cocoons made of miniature cameras, extremely precise sensors, quick-acting actuators, blanketing radars and fast computer chips is to advance the industry past the status quo in driver safety. Automakers are already capable of shaping and folding metal and integrating airbags and other electronic safety devices into the crash-survivable shells that the federal government requires.

The new phase is making vehicles that help you avoid accidents in the first place. "This is a revolution in how we're doing safety," said Daniel Johnson, a marketing-communications manager for Volvo. "Until lately, there really haven't been a lot of technologies that could handle the whole area of preventative safety."

Get a Load of These Warning-System Innovations
Now, every luxury-vehicle maker is offering at least one advanced-warning system somewhere in its lineup, and the aftermarket is getting in on the act as well. Here's a sampling:

Blind Spot Information System, Volvo: Available as a $695 option on the S80, V50, C70, V70, XC70 and XC90, this device uses an outside camera to detect when a moving vehicle is in your blind spot and activates an amber light on the left front window pillar to let you know. It's a handy innovation that serves as a great backup check if your mirror and over-the-shoulder glimpses don't detect a vehicle.

Distronic Plus system, Mercedes-Benz: This collision-prevention system is featured on S-Class sedans and CL-Class coupes and uses both short-range and long-range radar systems to distance you from moving vehicles ahead. It chimes if you're closing in too fast and preps the car for a possible collision by tensing the seatbelts and cueing up the airbags. Distronic Plus will brake the car up to 40 percent by itself if you don't respond; but once you start braking on your own to avoid a collision, the car will give you all the braking force it has. It's standard on: the CL600, C65 AMG, S600, S65 AMG, and a $2,880 option on the CL550, CL63 AMG, S550, and S63AMG.

Lane departure prevention, Infiniti: Available as an option in the technology package on all models except the G and QX, Infiniti offers a system that actually goes lane-departure warning one better: It physically prevents the vehicle from drifting if the driver doesn't intend it to. If a turn signal isn't engaged and a camera detects that the car is passing over a lane line, the system "selectively applies the brakes to the opposite side of the vehicle, which gently brings the car back in line," explained Ken Kcomt, a Nissan director of product planning.

Lane Departure Warning, BMW: Standard on 5 Series sedans and 6 Series coupes, this new system employs a camera that looks at the lines on the road ahead of it, and if the car crosses a line without a turn signal, the system lets you know. The steering wheel rumbles, creating a feeling similar to the rumble strips on the shoulders of highways. "It's a familiar sensation, so most people can interpret it right away," said Rich Brekus, general manager of product planning and research for BMW North America. "And besides, we didn't want the passenger to know every time you've set off this system, because some people don't use their turn signals as often as they should." You can also turn the system off.

Mobileye: One Jerusalem-based company supplies much of the electronic guts of these safety devices to automakers, including BMW and General Motors: Mobileye Ltd. Mobileye also offers its Advanced Warning System-4000 on the aftermarket. It uses a windshield-mounted camera to monitor cars and driving lanes in front of the car and then sounds warnings if space is too tight. Retail prices range from $1,400 to $1,800, said Jacob Pankovski, vice president of sales.

Pre-Collision System, Lexus: Available on all models except GX, RX, and SC, as a $2,850 option along with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, this system employs millimeter-wave radar projected from the front of the vehicle to determine when a frontal collision is unavoidable. Then, it activates the front seatbelt and boosts the brakes. If the driver responds quickly, everything is relaxed again. In Japan, this system is coupled with another piece of advanced technology that creates a "pre-pre-collision" device. That starts with two cameras mounted in the steering wheel that track the attentiveness of the driver by monitoring the position of features such as the tip of his nose and his eyebrows. If he seems to wander from straight ahead, a light flashes on the instrument panel, a beep sounds, the car prepares itself for braking and the shocks stiffen up. "That really gets the driver's attention if he's playing with his iPod or looking at a road sign," said Paul Williamsen, national manager of Lexus College, which trains the brand's personnel.

A Quandary: How Much To Help Drivers
For automakers, what actually can be more difficult than coming up with all this warning system technology is figuring out exactly how and when to use it. That's because, for those decisions, they have to reckon with the psychology of drivers — including how much people really want to be helped by even the most thorough and intelligent of safety devices.

"Our fundamental philosophy is the understanding that the human is the smartest computer in the vehicle," said Lexus' Williamsen. "So we make sure the driver can make the decisions."

Ford learned the importance of that a few years ago when engineers were researching the reactions of sleep-deprived people to an "active steering" system that nudged the car back into line if a driver nodded off and let the vehicle drift. "About half the drivers noticed what was happening, and most of them really hated it, even though it actually helped their performance," said Jeff Greenberg, Ford's senior technical leader for human-machine interface. "They had the sense that they didn't have full control anymore."

And a new feature of BMW's Active Cruise Control system brings the car to a complete stop by itself in stop-and-go traffic; if the vehicle ahead moves within 3 seconds, the BMW will proceed on its own again. But after 3 seconds, it's up to the driver to hit the accelerator again.

"We don't want the car to go again," said BMW's Brekus, "with someone still looking at their Blackberry."

Dale Buss is a journalist based near Detroit.