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High tech: The future is here

Once a rowdy novely possession with little practical use, the motor car has become a high-tech machine we can't live without. 

Words By: John Pedler

Since the horseless carriage first sputtered onto our roads, there’ve been constant technological developments to improve safety and comfort for vehicle occupants. The invention of the starter motor has meant fewer broken arms from hand-cranking, flashing indicators show us a driver’s intentions and seatbelts have saved countless lives.  

We’ve seen fuel injection replace carburettors, window operation change from manual to electric (though many of us still say wind up the window), and power steering means we no longer need riverboat steering wheels in cars. Anti-lock braking (ABS) helps take the skid out of braking and multiple airbags provide a full safety cocoon.

As the 21st century has progressed, there has been rapid development in high-tech gadgets. Much of it is designed to reduce the driver’s cognitive load – that’s all the information your brain has to process when behind the wheel. A lot of this tech relies on cameras, radars, sensors and, more recently, LiDAR (low-intensity laser light that provides 3D mapping of a car’s surroundings). And then there are simpler car features we didn’t even know we needed.

Lane depature warning

Lane departure warning systems have popped up in a lot of new vehicles and come from the same box of tricks used to develop self-driving cars. Most of these systems rely on cameras to detect line markings on the road. If the car starts to wander over a lane line, the driver is alerted by a flashing dash light and an alarm, and in some vehicles the steering wheel vibrates.

Indicating to change lanes overrides the system. More advanced systems steer the car back into the lane if the driver doesn’t take corrective action, but this shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity to eat a hamburger. No system is perfect, and lane departure warning may not work in bad weather, on sharp bends or if the camera or line markings are dirty.

Autonomous emergency braking

Most autonomous emergency braking systems (AEB) use cameras and/or radar to spot objects on the road ahead. If the gap between the AEB-equipped vehicle and the object ahead narrows suddenly, the system will give a warning and, if it detects that the driver hasn’t reacted in time, it’ll apply the brakes.

Each vehicle manufacturer has a different brand name for their version of AEB and not all systems are the same. Some work at higher speeds than others and some detect vehicles but not pedestrians or cyclists. Those that rely solely on cameras can struggle in poor weather conditions and low light, but night-vision cameras are helping solve this problem.

When buying a car with AEB, it’s important to know the capabilities and limitations of the system installed in the vehicle. Like all technology, there’s no guarantee that AEB will work every time. So, hands on the wheel and eyes on the road is still the best technique to avoid a crash.

From March 2023, AEB will be required in all new vehicle models released in Australia and in all new passenger and light commercial vehicles from March 2025.

Adaptive cruise control

With standard cruise control, the driver sets the speed, and the vehicle remains at that speed until the system is switched off or the driver brakes. This is particularly handy on long stretches of road when there’s not much traffic. Adaptive cruise control (ACC) takes this feature a step further. It allows the driver to set the speed and a desired time-gap between the car and any traffic ahead.

ACC will detect if the vehicle ahead is slower and reduce the speed to maintain a safe distance based on the settings the driver entered. The car will then accelerate if the vehicle ahead speeds up or changes lanes.

Like AEB, not all ACC systems are the same. For example, some will only operate over a certain speed while others have a ‘stop and go’ feature. This will bring the car to a halt if the traffic ahead stops, and then continue the trip if the vehicle ahead starts moving again within three seconds. Any longer and ACC will have to be re-engaged by the driver.

ACC can be deactivated like regular cruise control, and in most cars, you can switch between normal cruise control and ACC.

Driver fatigue detection

Driver fatigue plays a major role in highspeed vehicle crashes. A two-second nap at 100km/h potentially means up to 55m of driverless mayhem. To combat this problem, fatigue detection systems have been developed to monitor a driver’s behaviour and detect signs of drowsiness.

There’s a variety of different systems available which use a combination of technologies. Some use sensors in the steering wheel to identify erratic steering movements that suggest diminishing concentration. This could be combined with lane departure technology and other sensors to build a picture of a driver’s state of alertness.

Other systems use driver-facing infrared cameras (which can see through sunglasses) and facial mapping software to look for signals of sleepiness like frequent yawning, increased blinking and a droopy head. Once the system determines the driver needs a rest, it’ll trigger a light on the dash (often a coffee cup icon) and an audible alarm. In some vehicles, the seat will vibrate.

Systems linked to the car’s GPS will show the nearest place for a coffee and a break. The safest technique to deal with the dangers of driver fatigue is a good night’s sleep.

Overhead view

Overhead view technology combines the video feed from external cameras to create a simulated, 360-degree bird’s-eye view of a vehicle and its surroundings. More advanced systems allow the operator to shift the point-of-view and see the car’s position from different angles. Most systems use four cameras: one in front of the vehicle, one in the rear and two beneath the side mirrors.

The overhead view produced appears on the dashboard screen. This can be handy when parking between other vehicles or when the driver wants to make sure they’re centrally parked between the lines. When reversing, the on-screen grid lines — showing the direction the car is travelling — will bend when the steering wheel is turned, projecting where the vehicle will end up at the completion of the reversing manoeuvre.

Some systems allow the driver to select the view from each individual camera. Choosing a side view when parallel parking can reduce the risk of grinding wheel trims to dust on the kerb.

In low-light conditions, the enhanced onscreen camera views provide a clearer picture of obstacles than can be seen by the driver.

Combine this tech with proximity sensors that alert the driver to nearby hazards, and much of the stress of shopping centre car park adventures is eliminated.

Want to know more about car tech?

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