Robocar: Technology lets cars steer clear of accidents

Linda Melone

Every year, automakers spend millions of dollars developing safety features to help their vehicles stand out from the competition. Safety features have come a long way since air bags and antilock brakes. Many of the newer technologies can automatically adjust speed, apply the brakes and monitor blind spots.

Collectively known in the auto industry as "advanced driver assistance systems," these new technologies take safe driving to the next level.

Adaptive cruise control

Adaptive cruise control senses vehicles ahead and adjusts your vehicle's speed accordingly to keep a safe following distance. Adaptive cruise control systems with a pre-crash feature use radar or laser sensors to warn a driver of an impending crash and even apply the brakes in an effort to avoid a crash. Some systems tighten seat belts and close windows and sunroofs to lessen the risk of injury for the car's occupants.

Examples of adaptive cruise control systems include Lexus' Advanced Pre-Collision System, Mercedes-Benz's Distronic Plus with PreSafe Brake, and BMW's Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go.

Pedestrian detection system

Each year, about 12 percent of all traffic accident fatalities involve pedestrians, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Volvo X60's collision warning system, for example, uses radar to detect objects around the car and determine whether the driver is about to hit a person or another vehicle. The system sounds an alarm if an object is detected. If the driver doesn't respond to the alarm, the system automatically engages the brakes.

Blind spot information system

Developed by Volvo, blind spot information systems give drivers a visible alert (a light) on their dashboards and side-view mirrors when a car enters their blind spots. These systems use radar modules mounted in the rear quarter panels of the car on both sides.

Lane departure warning system

Lane departure warning systems monitor where the car is within a lane of traffic. Veering over the center line in a road or off the side of the road will prompt a warning signal to alert drivers that they have drifted off course. BMW's system, for example, uses a camera mounted between the rear-view mirror and the windshield that detects the lane markings on the road ahead. If the driver is about to veer out of the lane, the steering wheel vibrates.

Lane departure warning systems are offered as a feature on models from Volvo, GM and BMW. Drivers can also purchase them as add-ons. Mobileye, a vehicle safety technology company, for example, offers a variety of products that include lane departure warning capabilities.

Intelligent parking assist system (also known as advanced parking guidance system)

These systems assist drivers when they are parallel parking or backing into a space. With the help of the system (which involves a camera, sensors and computer processors), the car can steer itself into the parking space. The system was first deployed in Japan in 2004 on Prius hybrids. An upgraded version debuted in the Lexus LS 2006 model.

Insurance savings

Even if your insurer doesn't yet offer premium discounts for these high-tech features, making your car safer could lower your rate. If you cause an accident, your insurance company has to spend money on you, and it will try to recoup its costs in the form or higher premiums. Having a car that can avoid accidents even when you make mistakes could help keep your driving record clean -- and your premiums low.

If you don't have the cash for a car that comes equipped with these high-end devices, other standard safety features can help lower you car insurance premiums, says Elizabeth Stelzer, a spokeswoman for Nationwide Insurance.

Depending on your state, your insurer might offer premium discounts if your car has air bags and anti-theft devices.

"In addition, vehicles with antilock brakes and an overall better safety record earn lower rates by up to 25 percent as well," Stelzer says.

Safety technology can be a double-edged sword, however, says Terry McNeil, president and CEO of T.D. McNeil Insurance Services in Folsom, Calif.

"A device that allows the driver to automatically apply the brakes is not safer if it encourages someone to tailgate at a higher rate of speed," McNeil says. "It doesn't make up for a lack of common sense."

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