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Detroit auto show: Electronic nanny creeping into new cars

Published January 17, 2013

Simply put, technology is scientific research put into practical use and, judging from this year’s Detroit Auto Show, we’re still on the steep upward slope of technological advancements.

The most obvious trend is geared toward driver interface — more adaptation of infotainment, navigation and communication systems.

The electronic nanny is creeping into almost every vehicle. Adaptive cruise control slows you down when you approach a slower vehicle. Lane deviation warnings, blind spot indicators and rear facing cameras allow the driver to pay even less attention to his surroundings.

More from the Detroit auto show

But there is lots going on under the surface as well. For fuel efficiency, smaller displacement engines work harder and require more gears so they won’t bog down. Chevy’s Powerglide slushbox thrived for decades with only two speeds. Today, six speeds are the norm, seven and eight speeds are entering the mainstream and at the Detroit Auto Show, ZF was previewing a nine-speed automatic.

Selectable power modes adjust the engine’s performance and, in many cases, suspension damping is also modified to the level chosen. Select “comfort” or “ECO” and you get leisurely acceleration with a plush ride. Go for “sport” and the engine gains horsepower while spring and damping rates are firmed up.

Active suspension takes this one step further by automatically adjusting spring and damping rates within a few milliseconds to the ambient road conditions.

Infiniti’s new Q50 incorporates the first mainstream production use of steer-by-wire, where inputs from the steering wheel are transmitted to the wheels through processors and relays rather than mechanical linkages, although it still has a conventional steering column for backup. Theoretically, there’s no further need for a steering wheel as voice actuation, a joystick or even nudging a touch pad with your elbows could be used to change direction.

With rising fuel costs, every drop counts, so we’re seeing power steering and air conditioning compressors that are electric, rather than being engine-driven.

Transferring braking forces into electricity (regenerative braking) is normal in hybrids but Mazda’s i-Eloop stores this energy in a capacitor and uses that to power climate controls and entertainment systems. BMW uses alternators powered primarily during deceleration. Again, not turning compressors or pumps uses less fuel.

Rear view cameras are commonplace, but Nissan introduced four wide-angle cameras providing a virtual 360-degree view around the vehicle. The new Mercedes E class uses stereoscopic cameras to produce a 3-D view of the area in front of the car to a maximum range of 500 metres. This, along with a multi-mode radar system can detect hazards and warn the driver or slow the car to prevent collisions.

LED lighting is gaining ground for several reasons. They’re brighter, with a whiter light but they also last longer and run cooler. With hybrids flourishing, LEDs draw around 80 per cent less power than a comparable incandescent bulb, leaving more electrons to run the vehicle. They also allow designers more flexibility as their shapes and styles are infinite.

We’re still on the steep slope of advancements. Just look how far cellphones have come in the last ten years.

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