SEMA eNews Vol. 12, No. 16, April 23, 2009

Top 10 Gadgets and Innovations to Keep Your Eyes On

While computers get smaller, phones become capable of sending email and iPods become personal entertainment centers, one aspect has remained relatively the same: the technology that fascinates us and simplifies our lives has been limited in its use within our vehicles.

AAA recently took a look back at some of the best technological innovations that have been made for the automotive industry.

From a historic perspective, these technological gadgets have influenced elements of new vehicles. Looking forward, these may become standard on future vehicles.

AAA’s Top 10 Gadgets and Innovations

  • MyKey
  • Solar Roof Panel
  • Lane-Departure Warning Systems
  • Blind-Spot Warning Systems
  • Driver-Alertness Monitors
  • Collision Preparation Systems
  • Automatic Air Recirculation with Smog Sensor
  • "Green" Driving Assistance
  • SplitView
  • Enhanced Vehicle Stability Controls

One such innovation is the MyKey system. Introduced by Ford, the system is intended to be used by parents with teen drivers. The MyKey system limits teen drivers to a maximum 80 mph and has the option to limit speeds from 45–65 mph and everything in between. The system also creates a continuous alert system to notify the driver if they are not wearing their seatbelt.

The system will come standard with the new Ford Focus and will be considered for other models in the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln lineups.

Another innovation that has recently gained more attention is automotive solar panels. While these are not new in any way, they are garnering more attention as the “green” movement employs a technological appeal amongst consumers. While some current hybrids take advantage of the use of such solar panels, Fisker Automotive aims to release a luxury hybrid sedan in November with four large solar panels on the roof partitioned into 80 solar cells.

The energy collected can be used to power the motors that drive the car and the climate control system, or the user can opt to store the energy for future use.

A big innovation that has received attention in recent television commercials has been lane-departure systems. Although they seem simple in function, the systems take convoluted data, including sound, road markings and driver input, and neatly filter the information to alert drivers of possible unwanted lane departures. With the basic idea being to keep the driver within their own lane, some systems have gone so far as to include corrective steering.

One that will delight those who dread parallel-parking maneuvers are blind-spot warning systems. While marketed as an added safety measure, these systems work by giving drivers a view of common blind spots on their vehicle through the use of in-dash displays and cameras placed in the rear fascia of the vehicle. Quickly becoming a sought-after feature, companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Volvo and Cadillac, are offering these systems in their vehicles.

In line with lane-departure systems has been driver-alertness monitors. Working much like the lane-departure systems, driver-alertness monitors, records and analyzes throttle and steering inputs to ensure that the driver is alert and focused on the road. In the event that the driver is drowsy, asleep or considered inattentive, the system announces audible messages to refocus the driver’s attention to the road.

In the event that the lane-departure and driver-alertness systems fail, collision preparation systems have made great leaps and bounds to protect the lives of those in the vehicles. These systems are pre-programmed to calculate variables, such as the closing rate between vehicles, vehicle skid and disproportionate braking. From automatic seatbelt tightening to windows that close and doors that lock, the occupant’s safety is a primary priority.

For those with allergies or sensitive asthma, automatic air recirculation systems may be a beneficial upgrade. Many of these systems include a smog sensor, which further aids in the measuring of pollutant, allergen, carbon-dioxide and dust levels in the cabin of the vehicle. The system measures levels of the aforementioned allergens and actively switches between circulating outside air and recirculating air from within the cabin to ensure occupants are not exposed to any allergens or pollutants.

Considering the push to be “green," some manufacturers offer systems in their hybrid vehicles to help aid with passive driving. From visual display and menu options such as those on the Lexus RX330 hybrid to the visual cues on the tachometer of various Honda models, they all have the same final goal: showing the driver how they can save more fuel and drive more efficiently.

Although convenient, manufacturers, such as Honda and Ford, have taken extensive precautions to ensure that the displays are not overly distracting.

While in-car monitors placed forward of the driver's seat are often viewed as dangerous, Mercedes-Benz’s SplitView system has changed that drastically. Utilizing a single 8-inch screen, a driver and passenger can view two completely different images on the screen. While the driver can receive navigation information as well as various vehicle notifications, the passenger can watch a DVD and not interrupt the driver at all.

To further reduce possible distractions, the passenger can route audio through an audio port into headphones to reduce the noise within the cabin and allow the driver to focus on the directions and alerts being given to them.

The final innovation that AAA recognized was enhanced stability control. While not a single part per say, the use of many parts in conjunction helps to completely alter ride, handling and safety characteristics. Although the initial format of enhanced stability controls were through anti-locking braking systems, modern systems are more inclusive.

Today’s innovations feature individual braking to wheels in the event of a skid, anti-rollover technology and anti-sway technologies for trailers.

Moreover, active suspension controls—systems commonly used in race cars—use computer-controlled shocks to adjust valving on the fly and utilize special fluids that change viscosity simply by passing an electrical current through it.

Not only are these technologies important to understand for manufacturers, retailers and installers of specialty-equipment products, but their concepts can be applied retroactively to older vehicles.

Considering the popularity of contemporary engine swaps in classic bodies, the use of radial tires in lieu of bias-plies on musclecars, carburetor-to-EFI conversions and other acts of “modernization," these top tech trends and innovations could serve as a list of items to become familiar with. — SEMA Research & Information Center

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