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Cyber Cars

Computers take the wheel as the Auto industry turns to electronic bells and whistles
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

The industry hopes to use advanced electronics to improve automotive safety. The Advanced Restraint System in Ford's redesigned 2000 Taurus (and the Mercury Sable) "allows the car to think about the crash situation and react accordingly," explains Steve Kozak, Ford's occupant safety systems manager. Sensors detect whether front-seat occupants are wearing their seatbelts, and just how close to the steering wheel the driver is sitting. Crash severity sensors measure the forces involved in a collision, then decide how aggressively the two-stage front airbags will deploy--if they're triggered at all. "No longer are airbags a one-size-fits-all technology," Kozak boasts. In a slow-speed crash, the bags inflate more slowly, reducing the risk of inadvertent injury.  

Mercedes' BabySmart system will disable the right-side airbag if there's a specially equipped child carrier in the passenger seat. And GM is developing a seat sensor smart enough to not only tell the difference between an adult male, a small woman and a child--but where they are sitting. If they're leaning forward at the time of the crash, the system will reduce the force of the airbag, or perhaps disable it entirely.  

Electronic controls help today's cars stop better and maintain control even if they're going a bit too fast around an icy corner. A Mercedes adaptive cruise control system will let you set a desired speed, then adjust it automatically to maintain a safe distance in traffic. This radar-guided system, dubbed Distronic, debuted in Europe last year, and made the jump across the Atlantic this fall for model year 2001. Jaguar intends to offer similar systems soon afterwards.  

Even the lowly tire, an oft forgotten component in the rush to modernize automobiles, could get caught up in the electronic revolution. German-based Continental's Sidewall Torsion Sensor, or SWT, might look like a conventional tire, but it's imprinted with magnetic stripes. As the tires turn, they deform slightly, depending on whether the car is driving in a straight line, turning or skidding. Those changes can be picked up by an inexpensive sensor, then used to control the car's brakes, engine or electronic suspension.  

"Within a decade," high-tech systems ranging from navigation to satellite radio to Auto PCs will be installed in at least one-third of all cars sold in the United States, says Ron Knockeart, vice president of Intelligent Transportation Systems driver information systems for the supplier Siemens Automotive. The Roland Berger study predicts telematics alone will account for $12 billion in annual hardware sales by 2008 and $30 billion in service and other fees. These are the more conservative estimates.  

Just how far might tomorrow's cars go? A stretch of Interstate 15 near San Diego has been equipped with transmitters that communicate with specially equipped cars. They can drive automatically, letting occupants work, read, even catch a quick snooze. By the middle of the century, such vehicles might become the norm on the nation's highways.   Welcome to the revolution.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto e-zine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.Com.

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