Automotive technology never stands still. If one automaker introduces a popular feature, other automakers will follow with something better.
Lately, the emphasis has been on improving safety and efficiency. Automakers usually introduce new technology on luxury models. But if tradition holds, much of today's most exotic technology will find its way into mass-market vehicles. Over the next decade or so, the innovations listed below will make their mark in Europe, North America and Japan.
1 Night Vision: Cadillac mounted an infrared camera in the nose of its DeVille luxury sedan. Night Vision, which detects heat from objects as much as 270 meters ahead, can see through fog and detect obstructions by the side of the road. The safety advantage is clear: If the driver sees a potential hazard sooner, he can react more quickly. Heat-emitting images, generated by animals, people and other automobiles, are projected on the lower left part of the windshield. Because of an exclusive marketing deal with manufacturer Raytheon Co., Night Vision will be available only on Cadillacs until 2003.
2 Electronically controlled engine valves: For the past hundred years, engineers have steadily improved the internal combustion engine. But there is at least one big leap remaining, one that could significantly upgrade engine efficiency. If engineers could free the crankshaft from the camshaft, the engine's performance could be radically improved. If you have ever tried to turn a crankshaft by hand, you have an idea of the tremendous amount of energy needed to run the valvetrain. With electronically controlled valves, the crankshaft would spin freely without the drag caused by the camshaft. The camshaft's timing could be infinitely variable. And it could be much more precise, thanks to computer controls that would monitor speed and engine load. This has enormous potential for improving fuel economy, increasing performance and reducing emissions. Both Mercedes-Benz and BMW AG are developing this technology.
3 Electronic stability programs: Passive safety measures such as airbags help motorists survive crashes. Active safety measures can avoid the crash entirely. Electronic stability programs pioneered by DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and BMW help motorists maintain control during sudden maneuvers. When the car is turning, sensors at each wheel and in the steering system detect loss of traction. If the car starts skidding, the computer takes over. It applies one or more of the brakes and cuts the throttle to help the driver stay on the road. Combined with a traction control system, electronic stability programs take much of the hazard out of slippery roads.
4 Tire inflation warning devices: The massive Firestone tire recall last summer in the United States demonstrated that American drivers rarely check the pressure in their tires. Underinflation may have been one reason why so many Firestone tires blew apart on Ford Explorers. Electronic inflation warning systems are an inexpensive and simple way to build in another passive safety device.
5 42-volt electric systems: Today's cars use a lot of electricity, and the trend is clear: Automakers will add even more electronics to future vehicles. Proposed 42-volt electric systems will provide the power to free the engine from tasks such as power steering, climate control and brake boosters. This technology will debut on hybrid-powered vehicles.
6 Navigation systems: Electronic maps may be the motorist's last, best hope for beating gridlock. They are popular in Japan and Europe, and are beginning to gain favor in North America. But the auto industry has barely exploited the potential of this technology. Combined with telematics services, navigators can help motorists detect and avoid traffic jams. They also can locate restaurants, hotels and other destinations.
7 Advanced lighting systems: Xenon headlights, light-emitting diode taillights and high-intensity discharge lights are giving drivers a clearer view of the road without blinding oncoming traffic. Mercedes, BMW, GM and Ford have introduced high-tech lights on vehicles.
8 Automatic cruise control systems: Mercedes-Benz and Toyota's Lexus division are first in the market with cruise control systems that automatically regulate the distance between cars. The systems do so by easing the throttle or, in an emergency, lightly applying the brakes. The Mercedes system uses radar, while Lexus employs laser technology. Both scan the road ahead and maintain a pre-set distance.
9 Five-speed automatic transmissions: One key to cutting emissions and boosting fuel economy is to enable the engine to run at peak efficiency at all times. A five-speed automatic transmission helps make better use of an engine's torque.
10 Drive- and brake-by-wire: Mechan-ical linkages have connected the driver to the engine and brakes for more than a century. Electronic throttle and brakes will make vehicles more efficient, responsive and safer. The Chevrolet Corvette and Lexus LS 430 feature drive-by-wire.
E-mail writer Richard Truett at [email protected]