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Cargirl: Safety Systems Of the Future

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Cargirl: Safety Systems Of the Future
The nuns are still after me.
by Kate McLeod | (2007-06-10)
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Link to Original Article @ TCC

Active safety systems are kind of know-it-all passengers that carpool with you every time you turn the key . . . (Oops, I'm sorry I mean push the starter button. Keys are so 2005. Starter buttons--they're the new black. You put the key fob in the cupholder where you will forget it, leaving the car open with the keys in it.)

A couple of weeks ago I drove an Infiniti M45, equipped with, among other active safety systems, a lane departure warning system, which uses a camera situated behind the rear view mirror to spy on you. These systems, now on many of the high-end luxury vehicles, are among a number of active safety systems designed to protect us from ourselves-outsmarting our inattentiveness and saving our lives. The question is, will we accept them or disconnect them?

Active safety systems, like anti-lock brakes, traction control, brake assist and electronic stability control, act without your input. They decide an accident is coming and act to control the car before the accident happens. (Passive safety systems, like seatbelts and airbags, differ in that they engage once an accident has happened.)

But there's a new crop of active safety systems that give you warnings to which you must respond, like the lane departure warning system that beeps at you (M45) or vibrates your steering wheel (2008 BMW 5 Series) when it detects you're departing from your proper lane. These systems beep, flash, light up and cause vibrations in your seat and steering wheel. There are a host of these baby sitters, which are being developed because we aren't just driving--we're falling asleep, drifting and fiddling with the audio or our phone and people are getting killed. Interested parties like the big insurance companies have been pushing these technologies behind the scenes mostly because they want fewer fatalities, and fewer payouts on claims. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is conducting a study on the lane departure warning system now. Results will be in over this summer and IIHS and will probably recommend the system when the study is complete. The big question is whether or not drivers are going to embrace these systems.

"These new technologies that are coming along could prevent some of the fatalities, but we need to sort through which ones of these ideas are actually going to work," says Adrian Lund, president of IIHS. "Always, when you change the driving task you have to find out if drivers will pay attention and how behavior will change." Until they are in mass use, it won't be clear how drivers will respond­­. Will they annoy drivers who then turn them off or will they be used as a second pair or ears and eyes? Or will they encourage more carelessness because we figure the car will take care of itself?

Over a 300-mile drive the M45 Infiniti beeped at me every time I got near the center lane. I had the road to myself, it was daytime and I was relaxed-sure I drifted a little. Cornering, I touched the center line. The slightest deviance set off the beeping-it was like having a convent full of nuns in the car continuously chastising my behavior.

Predictions are that this system will become more invasive, monitoring body posture, head position and eye activity. Your car will decide if you're falling asleep and may be capable of slowing the vehicle down and engaging stability control.

I wouldn't buy a car with this sensor if it were the last car on earth. If it becomes required equipment like the tire pressure monitoring systems will be in 2008, a gusty business in sensor disconnections will blossom. I can't imagine any driver accepting this kind of policing. I can't remember much else about the drive or the car. All I remember is the beep, beep, beep.

Last weekend I drove a Volvo S80 with a blind-spot detection/side assist/collision warning system. It doesn't beep. A soft amber light illuminates when a vehicle comes up along the side of your car driving or parking. Volvo has positioned it so that it is within your peripheral vision-you see it out of the corner of your eye. At first, I thought I would get used to it and forget why it was there. But I found that the amber light quickly became driving habit. It came to the rescue on several occasions. This system is also used by Audi. Other systems like the one BMW uses cause the steering wheel or seat to vibrate. I haven't tested that but I can see where it could be effective--and/or annoying.

My husband thought that the light made him forget to look often in his rear view mirror. That's possible but you'd only know that after a longer test. As to the car testing, I had plenty of time to notice the Volvo S80, its design, beautiful interior and sensational driving dynamics. I love the amber light. It's a gentle assist, not a nun with a yardstick raised above her head.

More of these sensors are coming-adaptive cruise control/collision mitigation that is on many luxury models now will work its way down the ladder. Right now it is a costly option. If this system senses a potential collision it will brake hard and tighten seatbelts. Once the danger is over it returns your vehicle to the original cruising speed.

Personally, I'm not opposed to having a second pair of eyes and ears when I drive. I'm a pretty careful driver but there's a lot of really bad driving going on where I live. But I have some pride. For example, I don't want some sensor to parallel park my Lexus LS 460L for me. I'd be so embarrassed. If you can't parallel park your vehicle you should go back to driving school and learn how to do it.

Having experienced the invasive beeping, I am skeptical about how drivers are going to respond to these driving aids. After all, we're still trying to get people to buckle up and seatbelts are mandatory in every state exceptNew Hampshire where they still live free and die.

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I'm reminded of the commercials for the Volvo S80.

- You're gonna crash into that truck in front of you if you don't slow down or change lanes!

- There's something in your blind spot!

- Heartbeat monitor... Somebody is in your car!

Etc. Etc.

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