New technology upgrades make for safer vehicles

Autopilot, Integrated Toll Module among innovations

By Donovan Myrie - Investigative/Special Projects Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - Though we’re not quite at the point yet of flying cars, the technology in your next new vehicle -- whether it be a family hauler, daily driver or the sports car of your dreams -- has come a long way in the past few years. 

Some new cars, trucks, minivans, SUVs and crossovers can now park themselves, steer themselves and even avoid accidents quicker than any driver can react.

“It seems like it’s been about the past five years where there’s been a surge in a type of safety called active safety,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com. “This is kind of an expansion of things like anti-lock braking and stability control, technologies that are designed to prevent the accident in the first place.” 

Just this month, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandate that all new cars come with a backup camera as standard equipment, finally kicked in 11 years after the regulation was first passed during the Bush administration. Many new models now have other safety features such as rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot detection, and adaptive cruise-control available as either standard equipment or as an option.

Safety, has become the new black.

“The pace of change has just taken off,” Wiesenfelder said. “We’ve gotten to where the technology can actually improve upon what a good driver can do.” 

Tesla has been at the forefront with some of its technology and safety innovations in both the Model S and Model X. In 2013, the Model S got the highest score ever from safety tests conducted by the NHTSA. The Model X, which is the brand’s first SUV, also scored extremely well in 2017 NHTSA safety testing. 

Several factors help those two Teslas achieve such high marks.

Since they’re electric and use batteries to run small motors between the wheels -- S and X models have been all-wheel-drive since late last year and Tesla just announced an AWD version of the new Model 3 -- there’s no need for a gas engine up front.

All that spare room, however, isn’t just utilized for a frunk, or front trunk. Since there’s no big gas engine up front, the company was able to create stronger crumple zones to protect occupants in case of a crash. The battery packs also provide an extra safety feature because the packs sit in the floor pan of the vehicles, both models stayed upright in rollover tests because of their low center of gravity.

So far so good, but Teslas are still relatively new to the road.

“The issue of safety of electric cars is still a bit of a question just because there are not that many and we don’t have as many miles and years as we do with gas-powered cars,” Wiesenfelder said. 

Aside from the fact Teslas run on electricity, one of the company’s biggest selling points is its Autopilot option, a suite of features that keep the vehicle between the lines and sets the cruise control to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you.

Autopilot isn’t yet quite at the point of full autonomy as the system still requires human interaction since the driver must keep a hand on the wheel or the system will eventually disconnect.

But over at Cadillac, they are taking a more hands-off approach.

“It’s all hands-free,” said Danny Mudge of Masey Cadillac in south Orlando. “This is all new for 2018. This is the first Super Cruise and it’s only available in the Cadillac CT6.” 

Like Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac has its own version of a semi-autonomous system called Super Cruise. However, unlike Tesla’s AutoPilot, once engaged, Super Cruise allows a driver to take his or her hands off the steering wheel.

That may sound like a free pass to do a multitude of other things while driving, but Cadillac makes sure the driver still pays attention to the road. A small camera on the steering column monitors the driver’s eyes. 

“If you take your eyes off the road or you’re distracted, the steering wheel actually will let you know,” Munge said.

That CT6 steering wheel has an LED arc embedded in the top half. If your eyes start to wander (i.e. reading a text on your phone), the LED will flash yellow. If the driver continues looking elsewhere instead of straight ahead, the LED will turn red because Super Cruise is ready to disengage. 

BMW has Traffic Jam Assistant and Mercedes Benz has Active Distance Control Distronic and Active Steering Assist. The third big German luxury brand, Audi, has a new system coming out called AI Traffic Jam Assist, expected to debut in Germany later this year.

[Driving levels: A scale of how autonomous self-driving cars can be]

In the meantime, Audi engineers have developed a couple of interesting pieces of tech that don’t go the route of semi-autonomous driving, but do try to make your driving experience safer, more efficient and more convenient.

Audi’s new vehicle-to-infrastructure system – or V2I – ties a number of new features into their cars. Certain Audis can communicate with traffic lights so the driver knows when a light will turn red or, if already sitting at a stoplight, when the light will turn green.

Onboard computers will eventually be able to control the vehicle’s stop/start technology to restart the car five seconds before the green light.

Though not yet available in Florida, 10 other cities across the U.S. have V2I technology: Phoenix, Kansas City, Kansas, areas of Dallas and Houston, Palo Alto and Arcadia, California; Portland, Oregon and Denver, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C.

Florida Audi drivers will get to use the company’s new Integrated Toll Module later this year. ITM is embedded into the vehicle’s rearview mirror and replaces the need for an E-Pass or SunPass windshield sticker or transponder.

If using ITM, drivers can have both an E-Pass and SunPass account as well as EZ-Pass for northern states and California’s Fastrak if you plan to head west tied to the same car for maximum discounts and convenience.

Drivers will also be able to turn the transponder accounts on and off through the multimedia interface from within the car instead of through an app or desktop account and change settings for use in car pool lanes. 

“ITM provides an added layer of convenience and aesthetic enhancement,” company officials said in an email. “The mirror-based toll payment solution gives convenient access to the country’s toll roads while helping to eliminate windscreen clutter and the need to manage multiple toll accounts.”

Finally, new tech isn’t just for big-ticket luxury vehicles. Honda’s 2018 Odyssey minivan has an option called CabinWatch. A small high-mounted camera feeds a live picture of the cabin to the front dashboard touchscreen.

“CabinWatch is essentially an app that allows families to watch over their passengers,” said Peter Tran of Holler Honda in Winter Park. “Instead of having to turn your head to the rear to see your rear occupant, you can keep your head straight and look at the display.” 

What Honda is trying to do is cut down on distracted driving by enabling the driver to keep eyes forward and resist turning around. CabinWatch also has infrared so the driver can keep an eye on the passengers at night without turning on the cabin lights.

Along with the Honda’s CabinWatch comes Honda’s CabinTalk, a system that uses a driver-only microphone to make “PA-style” announcements through the speaker system or directly to passengers if they are plugged in and using headphones. 

“This is the most advanced minivan on the market,” Tran said. “Everything is designed to be able to adapt to technology of the future.”

So, although we aren’t quite ready for flying cars, apparently, in some vehicles, we are ready for the in-cabin announcements. 

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