More muscle (and muddle) on the way from microchips


It’s not exactly breaking news that electronics are commanding and controlling practically every function of our automobiles. However, plunging prices for computing power, software coding and the sensors that are sprouting like mushrooms all over the car do mean we’re seeing a generation of new electronics. These electronic features will enable the kind of driving enhancements that not that long ago might have been the stuff of Popular Science’s most ambitious fantasies.
A lot of this stuff is righteous and worthwhile — new-age electronic innovations are going to deliver another level of important safety advances, for example, and that’s a good thing.
Some of these “advances” (not to mention the cacophony of beeping and buzzing warnings that accompany them), might reasonably be judged more annoyance than assistance.
Let’s take a look:
— Ford Motor Co. is embarking on a wide-ranging initiative to deliver sophisticated electronic features and safety equipment even for moderately-priced vehicles. One of the more intriguing it recently showed to the media is called “Cross Traffic Alert,” a system that uses sensors embedded in the rearview mirrors and rear quarters of the vehicle to “look” behind and to the side when your own peripheral vision might be blocked, warning if there’s a car coming as you reverse out of a parking slot or onto a street.
It’s great that electronics give us this capability, no doubt. And I’ll admit, it’s a hassle when you’re boxed in by large vehicles that obscure your view as you back out of a parking space.
But is Cross Traffic Alert addressing a burning safety need? I mean, drivers back out of parking slots and onto streets millions of times every day — it used to be seen as a part of driving that requires simple caution to prevent an accident, not an bevy of electronic sensors and warning systems. Regardless, you’ll see Cross Traffic Alert on vehicles this year.
— Ford also said it’s almost ready with “Active Park,” a system that, well, parks the car for you. This isn’t a first. Toyota’s upscale Lexus division brought the innovation to market and several competitors have followed. But Ford wants to join mass-market makers like Volkswagen in offering automatic-parking capability for affordable vehicles.
Ford engineers say their Active Park system is more user-friendly than what we’ve seen so far. The Lexus system is as famous for the laughably complex process required to “program” it for each park as it is for actually parking the car. But I have to wonder, too, about the need for this capability.
Automated parking was envisioned primarily to aid parallel parking, a chore for many drivers, admittedly. Parallel parking is a lot more common in Europe than in the U.S., where there’s always been plenty of room for conventional straight-in parking. Let’s face it: how many times a year do you have to parallel park?
— You’re going to hear a lot more about so-called “forward-warning” and “collision-mitigation” systems. These rely primarily on sonar or radar sensors at the front of the vehicle to look at the landscape in front, and determine, for example, if you’re not paying attention and might rear-end a vehicle in front of you.
What happens? The sensors and software measure your velocity and compare it to the “view” it sees ahead. If you’re closing too fast on an object, you’ll get an audible warning. If you ignore the warning (or you’re just going too fast), the system automatically stands on the brakes to avoid what it deems an imminent collision.
Okay, if a fairly simple and inexpensive system can prevent rear-enders (extremely common and costly), then I’m all for it. And engineers are prepping some marvelous enhancements to prevent hitting a pedestrian or otherwise avoid an accident.
These forward-warning safety concepts piggyback on many of the components already being employed for the intelligent cruise control systems that already are common on higher-end vehicles, so it’s largely a matter of programming for additional capabilities. But just because these systems work, doesn’t mean they have value. I deplore intelligent cruise control, for example, because it’s typically anything but intelligent.
I’ve driven high-end models that are packed with a lot of electronic driving aids. There’s so much beeping and brapping going on — usually of the non-critical variety — I often find myself disregarding all the alerts and relying on my own senses and judgment. How’s that for an innovation?

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009