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2013 Toronto Auto Show: Fuel use, safety drive new technologies

Published February 13, 2013

It’s no exaggeration to say that the cars and trucks on display at the 2013 Canadian International AutoShow are the most technically advanced of their kind, ever.

But much of that technical advancement remains largely invisible to the casual observer — hidden beneath the shiny surfaces. You have to go looking to find it.

So what should you be looking for in terms of technology when you visit the auto show? There are several key areas on which most automakers are focusing.

Key trends

Improving fuel efficiency is perhaps the primary focus, driven by both consumer demand and near-draconian government standards that will keep tightening for the next dozen years.

Another key focus is safety, particularly in the area of new, more advanced automatic intervention systems that not only protect occupants in a crash but help prevent one from occurring.

Here are a few specific examples of technologies that illustrate these trends, all of which can be found in vehicles on display at the auto show.

Diesel engines are not new, but they’ve become substantially more capable and refined — and cleaner — over the past couple decades. They offer the advantages of inherently-better fuel efficiency and low-speed response than comparable gasoline engines.

While all the German automakers have offered at least some diesels in their North-American lineups, with a few brief exceptions other manufacturers haven’t followed suit.

Now that situation is changing. Chevrolet (Cruze), Jeep (Grand Cherokee) and Mazda (Mazda6) all display diesel-powered cars or utility vehicles at the show that are or soon will be available in Canada. And some other non-German automakers won’t be far behind.

Electrification

The move to electrify our vehicles, to various degrees, keeps gaining momentum.

Almost every automaker now offers one or more hybrids in its lineup, with Volkswagen (Jetta Hybrid) the latest to fall in line, and the first to offer a turbocharged/hybrid combination.

Automatic stop/start systems, the simplest level of electrification, are also becoming much more available, even in such low-priced cars as the Kia Rio.

Ford has now joined Chevrolet (Volt) and Toyota (Prius) with plug-in versions of its C-Max and Fusion, both called Energi.

Plugging these vehicles into an external power source overnight precharges the battery sufficiently to allow a period of initial operation, up to several kilometres, on electric power alone, before the gasoline engine kicks in.

There are some new pure battery-electric production vehicles in the show this year as well, in the form of the Chevrolet Spark EV, Ford Focus EV and Smart Electric Drive, as well as an updated Nissan Leaf.

Turbocharging

Turbochargers have been used on passenger cars for the past 50 years, primarily as a means of boosting performance.

Now they’re more popular than ever before, but as a tool to help improve fuel efficiency, not just performance.

Use of a turbo, in combination with direct injection, allows peak power output to be maintained at a given level, for passing and towing capability, while the engine itself can be downsized to be more efficient in normal driving conditions.

To illustrate this point, you’ll find several 1.4-, 1.6- and 2.0-litre turbocharged engines in vehicles that previously might have had bigger four-cylinder or even V-6 engines.

Collision prevention systems

Considered exotic technologies just a handful of years ago, collision prevention systems are now widely available across a broad range of makes and models — and not just in the premium price ranges.

These systems typically warn the driver of impending danger, be it from a vehicle in the adjacent lane, one ahead or behind, or one approaching from the side.

In many cases, if the driver fails to take appropriate action, the system itself will intervene to either prevent a collision or at least mitigate the severity if one occurs.

Depending on the manufacturer and the system, they employ a variety of technologies, including cameras, radar, sonar, lidar infrared and microwave sensors — all backed by sophisticated computer systems and software.

Most such systems are identified by some manufacturer-specific brand name but they tend to fall into generic categories: Adaptive cruise control and automatic braking, lane departure warning and intervention, cross-traffic alert and intervention, object and pedestrian warning and intervention and a few other more specific technologies.

Other technologies

Of course, there are many other new and developing technologies to check out at the show, including multiple systems to keep people as connected to each other and the world at large when they’re in the vehicle as they are outside it.

Almost all manufacturers now offer some level of smartphone integration and many go much further, with fierce competition to offer differentiated features and services that could provide a competitive edge.

For more AutoShow coverage, visit the Wheels.ca website.

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