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Other technologies will simply keep drivers’ attention focused on the road. GM has introduced a device on the Saab 9.3 that collects data from sources such as the speedometer and even windshield wipers to determine when dashboard messages are appropriate, so that, for example, drivers braking on sharp curves in the rain won’t be distracted by nonessential information such as a low-fuel warning light. Beyond suppressing dashboard lights, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and GM are researching systems that could prevent embedded cell phones from ringing or halt in-car entertainment during stressful driving situations.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration plans to road-test lane guidance devices this fall. The agency, which establishes and enforces federal vehicle safety standards, wants to ensure that such systems can compensate for driver errors. Among other things, the agency will assess driver-warning methods such as the dashboard displays, audio signals, and vibrating driver’s seats. Although these tests aren’t expected to produce federal requirements, they could pave the way for automakers’ adoption of these warning devices.

But clearly, automakers face a delicate task. Besides ensuring that new systems don’t actually add to distractions, they must craft devices that drivers perceive as helpful high-tech aids, not ego-bruising reprimands. Otherwise, drivers won’t want to buy cars that include the new warning systems, industry observers say. “Every driver seems to have the perception that they’re better than average,” notes Sayer. “Not everybody wants to be told on a regular basis that they are doing something wrong.”

In the long term, however, the production of automobiles laden with video and radar sensors could hasten the arrival of passenger vehicles that go beyond warning the driver to actually taking the wheel autonomously, perhaps with the help of a sophisticated road infrastructure.

Although that’s still a distant vision, be warned: cars that do their own back-seat driving are closer than they might appear.

Smart Cars Rev Up: A sampling
MANUFACTURER TECHNOLOGY EARLIEST COMMERCIALIZATION
Ford
(Dearborn, MI) spot
Video sensors that detect objects in a driver’s blind during turns and trigger warnings
2006
DaimlerChrysler
(Stuttgart, Germany)
Radar-assisted cruise control that maintains separation from other cars at low speeds (devices
for highway speeds are already in some cars)
2006
DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda (Tokyo, Japan), Nissan (Tokyo, Japan) Video sensors that track lane position and warn drivers against drifting into other lanes 2007
BMW
(Munich, Germany)
Camera that tracks eyelid movements and triggers an alarm to alert drowsy drivers 2008
DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM
(Detroit, MI)
Data flow computer that tracks high-stress driving actions and blocks nonessential information 2008

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