Top 10 in New Car Tech

AAA lists the best in new car gadgets and systems, from teen-controlling keys to stability controls

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There is no doubt that cars are getting smarter and more fun with the help of new tech. Conservative manufacturers are getting quicker about moving new gadgets and systems into our autos.

Tech has become the cupholder of the 21st Century, helping set models apart from each other. Wading through the many options, AAA recently compiled its list of top car tech for 2009 and 2010 models:

MyKey. Introduced by Ford, MyKey employs a computer chip in the vehicle's ignition key to limit teen drivers to a top speed of 80 mph. Parents can also program the teen's key to limit audio system levels and sound a continuous alert if the driver doesn't wear a seatbelt. Another MyKey option is the ability to sound a chime if the teen driver exceeds 45, 55 or 65 mph. While this technology does not replace the need for parental involvement with teen drivers, MyKey can be a helpful tool when used in conjunction with AAA's driver training and parent-teen driving agreement.

MyKey will be introduced as a standard feature in the 2010 Ford Focus, Escape hybrid, and selected other vehicles before spreading to the entire Ford, Lincoln and Mercury lineup as models are updated.

Solar Roof Panels. Some hybrid models now integrate solar roof panels into their designs, making this technology one of two environmentally-friendly features on AAA's top-10 list. The Karma luxury hybrid sedan, due out in November 2009 from American sports car company Fisker Automotive, will have a solar roof partitioned into four zones with 20 solar cells in series that convert sunlight into electrical energy. The power generated can be sent to the electric motors that drive the car, used to power the climate controls or stored for future use.

The 2010 Toyota Prius uses a solar roof to power a fan that circulates fresh air through the interior when the vehicle is parked. This keeps the passenger compartment cooler and reduces the load on the electrically powered air conditioning system the next time the car is driven.

Lane Departure Warning Systems. Though not new for 2009, the increased availability of lane departure warning systems is an important safety feature that earns this technology a spot on the list. These systems monitor a vehicle's path of travel, typically through tracking of lane markings, and sound an audible and/or tactile (through the steering wheel) alert when the vehicle drifts outside its lane. Some systems are able to provide corrective steering input in addition to sounding an alarm.

First introduced in North America by Infiniti, lane departure warning systems also are now available on selected new models from Cadillac, Lexus, BMW, Buick, Volvo, Audi and Mercedes Benz.

Blind Spot Warning Systems. A few of today's new cars offer blind spot warning systems as an added safety feature. These systems monitor the areas at the rear sides of the vehicle that are often invisible in the mirrors. The systems provide a visual indication, usually on the applicable side mirror, when an obstacle is present in the monitored area. Mercedes Benz, Mazda, Volvo, Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln are among the manufacturers offering blind spot warning systems.

Driver Alertness Monitors. The dangers of drowsy driving are frequently overlooked by motorists, which earns driver alertness monitors a spot on AAA's top-tech list. Mercedes Benz will introduce the Attention Assist feature on select 2010 models to combat the threat of drivers falling asleep while at the wheel. Attention Assist monitors the driver's steering and throttle inputs, and when they vary too far from normal patterns a loud voice announces, "Attention Assist! Brake!" to alert the sleepy driver. Volvo began offering similar system called Driver Alert in 2008 and has it available on several upcoming models.

Though a great new technology, driver alertness monitors do not replace the need for a good night's sleep and knowing when it is time to stop and rest when traveling. Motorists should not view these monitors as an excuse to test their endurance behind the wheel.

Collision Preparation Systems. These systems are programmed to recognize situations that indicate an accident may be imminent, such as when the closing rate with the vehicle ahead exceeds a certain limit, the vehicle begins to skid or the driver initiates hard braking. Once triggered, collision preparation systems take steps to reduce the possibility of a collision while providing maximum protection for the vehicle occupants. Depending on the model, a collision preparation system may: tighten the seat belts, close open windows and sunroofs, lock the doors and apply the brakes. Acura, Lexus, Toyota, Volvo and Mercedes Benz are among the manufacturers that offer collision preparation systems.

Automatic Air Recirculation with Smog Sensor. Some Lexus models offer a unique feature on their climate control systems that automatically switches the ventilation system to recirculate when high levels of outside pollutants are detected in the cabin. The system reverts back to fresh-air intake once detectable levels of pollutants have been reduced.

The system's ability to detect dust, pollen, smoke and carbon dioxide make it a helpful feature in both urban and rural environments.

"Green" Driving Assistance. Several new hybrid models offer drivers a choice of operating modes that can help them obtain maximum fuel efficiency. A couple of manufacturers have gone a step farther and integrated visual cues into their instrument panel displays that help "teach" motorists how to drive more efficiently. In the Ford Fusion hybrid, a plant grows branches and leaves when the car is driven in a fuel efficient manner-and withers as economy goes down. The 2010 Honda Insight hybrid has a speedometer display that varies in color from blue to green as efficiency increases and offers guidance on braking techniques.

Ford and Honda have taken care in designing these displays to ensure they are not too distracting for drivers. The desire to obtain maximum fuel efficiency should never take away from drivers' awareness of their surroundings and the need for safe vehicle operation.

SplitView. Mercedes Benz's 2010 S-Class cars will debut a new display technology that allows the driver and passenger to see two totally separate programs from the same display. The driver can access navigation information, receive turn-by-turn directions and monitor various vehicle systems on the eight-inch screen, while the passenger can watch a DVD on the same screen at the same time without distracting the driver. The system allows the audio program on the passenger's side to be routed through headphones to further reduce distractions.

While an innovative technology, the SplitView system is most noteworthy as the first in-car video entertainment system for front-seat passengers that does not pose a distraction to the driver.

Enhanced Vehicle Stability Controls. The next item on AAA's list is not one technology, but rather a group of features that began with anti-lock brakes and has evolved into a wide range of electronic suspension controls that improve ride, handling and safety. Most cars today have some form of stability control that works to offset vehicle skids by using the anti-lock components to apply the brakes at selected wheels. Rollover control extends the operation of stability control into a third dimension to counteract the tendency of tall SUVs to tip over under extreme cornering. The latest enhancement to stability controls is towing sway control that detects cyclical side loadings on the vehicle and uses the ABS components to counteract trailer sway.

In a related area of stability, many highline vehicles now offer some form of active suspension control that provides real-time variable shock absorber damping to improve ride and handling. This is done through computer controlled shock absorbers that have electrically switched internal valving or use a special fluid that changes viscosity (thickness) when an electrical current is passed through it. BMW offers a further enhancement called Active Roll Stabilization that can uncouple the suspension's anti-roll bars for a smooth ride in a straight line, then selectively re-couple the bars as needed for optimum cornering performance. Most active suspensions also have a control that allows the driver to select between a number of modes that vary from comfort to performance.