The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Saved By Technology: Hot New Safety Features Hit the Luxury Market

December 23, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – Enhancing the well-being of passengers and drivers with creative new features is one way automakers are attempting to distinguish themselves in a hyper-competitive market.

“Some of the new technologies have a great deal of potential,” said Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). “The big unanswered question is how drivers will react. Some of these systems rely on warning the driver to take action. If multiple warnings and buzzers go off, will drivers turn them off?” If you've ever taken the battery out of your smoke detector because it goes off when you cook dinner, the answer may be “yes.”

If you buy a vehicle with the hottest new safety features, the key issue to be aware of is that they might actually give you a false sense of security, and you'll just drive faster and more recklessly, thus negating any additional margin of safety you might have purchased.

If you can’t resist the latest bells and whistles, here's a brief run-down of some of what's out there right now. As usual, you can expect technology from today's luxury cars to trickle down to less expensive vehicles within a few short years.

Since more deaths occur in frontal collisions than any other type of accident, forward collision warning is a promising technology. Radar or laser sensors in the front of the car detect objects the driver might crash into, and the car then warns the driver. The warnings vary with the manufacturer: some use sounds or lights in the instrument panel or - in the case of Volvo - lights projected onto the windshield. With Acuras, the safety belts are also tightened slightly. If the system is connected to a brake-assist feature, the vehicle may even apply the brakes with increasing pressure. Acura, Mercedes and Volvo are currently using versions of this technology.

Emergency brake assist, as mentioned above, provides extra power to the brake system when you try to stop suddenly. Brake pedal sensors help the computer understand if the situation is normal or not. According to the IIHS, Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and Volvo are currently using this technology. On BMWs and Volvos the system moves pads closer to the wheel discs for faster activation of the brakes. Infiniti adds pre-pressurization of the brake system, anticipating driver action. However, most cars will boost braking power only when a driver suddenly applies the brakes.

Are you a lane drifter? With lane departure warning, if you ease out of your lane, the car will warn you. Infiniti's system uses cameras and also monitors the steering angle and throttle position, and will steer the vehicle if it senses that the driver isn't reacting properly. With BMWs, drivers are alerted by a vibrating steering wheel akin to driving over the rumble strips on highway shoulders. Audi, Buick, Cadillac and Volvo also have versions of this technology that rely on audio and visual warnings.

If you thought that headlights that moved with your steering wheel were lost in ancient automotive history (along with the iconic Tucker and the groovy Frenc-h Citroen SM), think again. It's a good idea that has come back: with adaptive headlights, as you begin a turn, you can actually see in the direction you're turning, rather than just straight ahead. Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Maserati, Porsche, Volkswagen, and Volvo are using variations of this concept.


We all have our blind spots. Unfortunately, so do cars, so blind-spot detection has been invented. Cameras scan lanes on both sides of your car and let you know when a vehicle has entered the blind spot. Again, you can expect this feature to move down the food chain to lower-priced cars in the next few years.

But who would want to be seen in a car that has all of these amazing devices, but was scratched-up? Though not computer-assisted in any way, Infiniti's new Scratch Shield can automatically fill in light scratches on a car's exterior. After a scratch, this clear coat will actually "heal" over the course of a couple of days. Warm temperatures help it work, but in winter or colder temperatures it may take a few extra days.

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Remaining active in the fleet industry for more than 50 years, Ed Bobit is chairman and founder of Bobit Business Media (BBM), Automotive Fleet editor, and a founding AFLA member.

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