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There was a time when sophisticated driver assist systems were the realm of luxury cars. The reason is simple, really. The cost of any new tech innovation is high, and it’s easiest to bury this cost in higher end vehicles offered at a premium price. It was thus with many innovations we now take for granted in our cars like air bags and anti-lock braking. These days, the most desired driver assist and advanced safety systems are pretty much standard fare in most new models.

We were impressed years ago when Honda launched its ‘Safety for Everyone’ program and made its latest safety innovations standard fare on all its vehicles. The auto industry as a whole has followed suit, and now even the most sophisticated systems can be found on entry-level models, increasingly as standard equipment or as available options. While drivers of premium vehicles may still be the first to experience the latest new twist operating silently behind the scenes as they drive, you can be assured the technology will filter down to all models over time.

There are reasons for that because safety is always on the minds of new car buyers. The availability of systems that keep drivers and their families safe on the road, or at least as safe as possible, are highly desired. Automakers know this. Active and passive safety offer a competitive advantage in new car sales, right alongside other traditional touchstones like value, style, dependability, efficiency, and performance. If a new and highly-desired feature is introduced by one brand’s vehicles, there’s no doubt you will be seeing it offered in competitive models soon enough. There’s too much at stake for automakers not to emphasize safety, just as they emphasize electrification, efficiency, and environmental performance in their new model vehicles.

These days, technology is an active participant in our driving experience, constantly looking to warn us of unsafe conditions and offer alerts, and sometimes even initiate last-minute control to avoid an imminent collision. Their importance can’t be overstated. In the early years of driver assist systems, there were claims and assumptions regarding their promise for preventing potential collisions and saving lives. Now there is actual data to support this.

Recently, GM partnered with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to study the real-world effect its driver assist, active safety, and advanced headlight features were having in preventing or lessening various types of crashes. The study involved data from some 3.7 million GM vehicles across 20 models, making use of police crash report databases from 10 states. Comparisons were made involving vehicles equipped with advanced active safety features and others without this functionality.

The results showed that driver assist systems can make a dramatic difference in eliminating or mitigating crashes. Automatic emergency braking with forward collision alert was shown to reduce rear-end striking crashes by 46 percent. Lane keep assist with lane departure warning reduced lane departure crashes by 20 percent, with lane change alert and side blind zone alert bringing a reduction of 26 percent in lane change crashes.

Even advanced lighting made a difference in driving safety. Here, high-intensity discharge headlights brought a 21 percent reduction in nighttime crashes involving pedestrians, bicyclists, or animals. In addition, advanced headlight systems that automatically turn high beams on or off in response to surrounding conditions delivered a 35 percent reduction. When combined, the two lighting systems resulted in a 49 percent crash reduction.

Clearly, automobiles have become more complex over time. In their early years, an automobile’s electrical system was limited to fundamental functions like a starter, generator, headlights and taillights, instrumentation, and an audio system. Over the years this grew more extensive, including everything from navigation, electric-assist steering and braking, electronic transmission control, electronic ignition, anti-lock braking, an array of airbags, and advanced emissions controls.

Today’s more sophisticated automobile integrates all this and more, from active safety assist systems and real-time traffic navigation to semi-autonomous driving, all enabled by on-board computers. Industry experts point out that today’s vehicles are often equipped with hundreds of controllers and sensors, and dozens of on-board computers (electronic control units, or ECUs), generating tens of gigabytes of data every hour. It’s expected that the coming generation of fully autonomous vehicles could generate upwards of 30 terabytes every day.

Supporting the electronics that process, analyze, and activate, the array of cameras, radar, and LIDAR sensors strategically and discretely positioned around a connected car ‘see’ vehicles, objects, and people ahead, around, and behind. These feed information to on-board systems that enable everything from the view seen in a back-up camera to determining the speed of a car in front of you, allowing adaptive cruise control to adjust your speed to avoid overtaking the vehicle ahead.

These sensors are constantly evolving and improving, a necessity as we head toward fully-autonomous driving. While LIDAR continues to be a favored system by automakers, other innovations are in the works. One example is next-generation radar systems. Until now, vehicle radar has been limited to capturing just speed and direction, which is one of the reasons why vehicles use multiple sensor types for their driver assist and semi-autonomous driving features. Now, the newest long-range radar designs will determine an object’s speed, range, direction, and elevation, even at higher speeds and under challenging lighting or weather conditions.

Evolution is a hallmark of life, and it seems, of driving. Even as our cars are getting more complex in every sense as they adapt to modern life, they are also getting smarter…and safer. All that technology is delivering much more than the comfort, performance, entertainment, and driving pleasure we’ve come to expect from modern vehicles over time. We now benefit from a more confident driving experience and enhanced safety on the road as well, with technologies like those described below serving as our copilot.

ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL: As a stand-alone system or as part of semi-autonomous driving systems, ACC works like conventional cruise control with the addition of sensing technology that determines the speed and distance of the car ahead. It modifies your set cruise speed to avoid overtaking that vehicle. Many systems can bring your vehicle to a full stop if needed. Some advanced systems even reference map data to anticipate upcoming curves, roundabouts, toll booths, and more, then automatically reduce speed accordingly.

AUTOMATIC EMERGENCY BRAKING: Coupled with advance warning of unsafe closing speed or other immediate hazards, this system will automatically apply emergency braking to help avoid or mitigate a collision. Rear and pedestrian AEB is also offered as part of this system.

AUTONOMOUS DRIVING: Sometimes confused with fully ‘self-driving’ capabilities not yet here or approved, to  degrees, today’s semi-autonomous systems can help keep a vehicle centered in its lane, pace a vehicle ahead at a safe distance, and often bring your vehicle to a full stop in gridlocked traffic, then resume driving when traffic in your lane is moving again. Some systems identify the pressure of hands on the steering wheel to allow continuing use of a semi-autonomous driving system, while others, like Cadillac, use a strategically-mounted camera that monitors a driver to confirm they are paying attention to the road ahead.

BLIND SPOT MONITORING: This system alerts a driver of vehicles in its blind spots to increase safety when changing lanes, passing, or being passed.

FORWARD COLLISION WARNING: Audible and visual warnings are provided to alert a driver of the potential of a forward collision. Some systems also provide brake pulsing as a further warning to gain a driver’s immediate attention.

HEAD-UP DISPLAY: A HUD projects driving information projected ahead of a driver’s view, sometimes as simple as mph but often providing info on various driver assist functions including turn-by-turn navigation.

LANE DEPARTURE WARNING: This system provides audible and visual warnings if your vehicle strays outside of its lane when a turn signal is not activated.

LANE KEEP ASSIST: Taking over after a lane departure warning, this function provides varying degrees of steering input to help maintain lane position.

NIGHT VISION: Using infrared sensing technology, night vision displays an enhanced view of the road ahead that helps identify pedestrians, animals, or other hazards that may be beyond the view of a car’s headlights.

PARK ASSIST: This system enables a driver to select automated parallel, and sometimes perpendicular, parking functionality. It uses sensors to identify an open parking space of suitable size and the position of parked vehicles, then controls steering angle to automatically guide your vehicle into the space. Many systems require a driver to control braking, acceleration, and gear position, while others handle all functions automatically.

REAL-TIME TRAFFIC: Navigation systems that integrate real-time traffic information are valuable in saving time, fuel, and maximizing driving range with their ability to reroute around traffic jams and construction projects.

REAR BACK-UP CAMERA: Now found on a wide range of vehicles, a view to the rear is shown in a dashboard display or rear-view mirror when a driver shifts into reverse, often including grid lines depicting a driver’s angle of approach and relative distance from nearby vehicles or objects. Audible warnings are provided when objects are too close or a potential collision with an object, vehicle, or pedestrian is detected.

REAR PARK ASSIST: At low speed while in reverse, sensors detect objects and a potential collision, providing a warning brake pulse and then bringing your vehicle to a stop.

SURROUND VIEW CAMERA: This technology uses multiple cameras strategically positioned on a vehicle to provide a ‘birds’-eye’ perspective of the vehicle and its immediate surroundings.

The technology sector of the auto industry is advancing at a rapid pace. So fast, in fact, that if you blink something might be missed. New high-tech features are a key selling point in many higher-end or luxury vehicles today. It’s only logical that these new technologies launch in more expensive vehicles, because they are costly to engineer, develop, and produce. Premium platforms can more readily absorb the higher costs because they have greater profit margins.

That said, many of the advanced systems that were new to market just a year or two ago are working their way into more mainstream models. It’s simply the natural evolution of the car market. Coincidentally, many of these sophisticated on-board systems are now standard or optional features in electric, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Some of the latest electronic wizardry is targeting future autonomous transportation, or at least partial autonomous mobility. We are already seeing the first steps today. Some current production models feature automatic emergency braking to avoid an imminent collision or warn s driver if their car is drifting out of their lane. Some driver assistance systems also provide gentle steering input to keep a car centered in its lane if drifting occurs when a turn signal is not engaged.

Self-parking technology allows vehicles to parallel or head-in park without a driver touching the steering wheel, accelerator, or brakes. To accomplish this, a vehicle is equipped with sensors in the front, rear, and on the sides to determine distances to nearby objects. With that information, a car’s on-board computer can provide accurate control inputs to accomplish the parking sequence. Parking is done efficiently on the first shot, clearing the lane while saving both time and fuel.

The evolution of adding exterior cameras on vehicles began with rear-facing backup cameras. These transmit a real-time rear view to a dash-mounted display, allowing a driver to more accurately see what’s behind the vehicle. This very useful technology has filtered down to just about any car or truck with an LCD display. More advanced systems show the path a vehicle will take as the steering wheel is turned.

That was just the beginning. Cameras now proliferate in other locations on vehicles as well. The latest development places cameras on the sides of a vehicle, with some integrating eight cameras placed all around the vehicle perimeter. These provide information used in lane departure mitigation by reading lane markers and other side threats. When a lane departure is detected without a turn signal, some manufacturers alert a driver audibly and visually while others vibrate or pulse the steering wheel or seat to get a driver’s attention.

Another advantage of having cameras mounted all around the vehicle is the ability to show a birds-eye view of a car or truck on its LCD display. All camera views are stitched together to provide what can best be described as an image from a drone hovering above the vehicle. A top view image of the vehicle is superimposed in the middle. This takes back-up camera safety to a whole new level since a driver can check for pedestrians, small children, and other obstructions that might otherwise be missed from the driver’s seat. It is especially helpful in taller vehicles like trucks and SUVs.

Enabling much of the latest technology is the proliferation of LCD screens in the dash. Most of these displays are touch screen, providing increased control over various electronic functions. The goal is to provide the information and interface without it becoming a distraction to the driver, so eyes and attention aren’t diverted from the road for too long. To solve this, many systems now have a voice interface that allows the driver to push a steering wheel-mounted button and tell the car what they would like it to do, much like Apple’s Siri.

Of course, one of the first electronic functions to be integrated into LCD displays was GPS navigation. This handy function assists in driving more efficiently by suggesting the most direct or quickest route, thereby saving fuel. We’re all familiar with the way these systems adjust on the fly, redirecting a driver if you wander from the designated route by providing audible navigation prompts for getting back on track. This intelligent operation means eyes can stay on the road, an operating strategy that other ‘smart’ on-board systems would be wise to follow. Electric cars and plug-in hybrids can also find the nearest public charging station using most nav systems, a handy thing if you are driving in unfamiliar territory.

Traction control, a system that detects drive wheel spin and adjusts power and braking accordingly to keep a vehicle moving forward, has been with us for many years now. While not connected to the road in the ‘smart’ sense like the newest driver assist technologies, manufacturers are taking this concept another step with vehicle rotation and wheel speed sensors at all four wheels to keep the vehicle from spinning-out and losing control. Though there are different names for this technology, it is commonly referred to as yaw control since it detects rotation of the vehicle and applies power or braking to individual wheels as needed, thus preventing the potential for spin.

Technologies facilitating communication between vehicles and the surrounding environment hold great promise and are already being deployed to a degree. With car-to-car interaction, a driver could be alerted in advance to slippery conditions if a car ahead experiences wheel slip or traction control is activated. Two-way communication between vehicles can also be used to warn of road hazards, or by emergency vehicles to alert nearby drivers to proceed with caution or give way.

One of the most useful technologies to come out in the past few years is adaptive cruise control. This feature gauges distance to the vehicle in front when cruise control is set. If that vehicle is going slower than the set cruise speed in your vehicle, cruise speed will be reduced to match the vehicle ahead and keep a safe distance. Adaptive cruise control systems typically allow a driver to select the distance they feel is safe. Most systems will also bring your car to a complete stop and apply braking if necessary to avoid a collision or an object in the road.

This is made possible by the integration of forward-facing radar. The radar sends a signal out that bounces off vehicles or objects and is returned to the vehicle’s receiver. An on-board computer then calculates distance and closing speed to determine what appropriate actions are required. More advanced adaptive cruise control detection incorporates LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). LIDAR works much like radar but uses lasers to read distance.

In the not-too-distant future, cars will communicate with smart city infrastructures in addition to other vehicles on the road. Greater use of cellular signals for this communication plus satellite information will also be required. Work on this front is already well underway as it will be necessary for implementing both semi- and fully-autonomous vehicle operation.

All of this new and future connected technology requires considerable computing power inside the vehicle, which will add weight and require a very stout electrical system. The connected car trend has considerable momentum and is sure to advance at a rapid pace in the future. So don’t blink…or you may well mist the next big breakthrough in this fast-paced field!


2019 Transit Connect Van
Ford's Transit Connect, named Green Car Journal's 2019 Commercial Green Car of the Year™ at the San Antonio Auto & Truck Show, is available in both cargo van and wagon variations. This popular commercial vehicle emerges as an all-new generation in 2019, with changes in its overall appearance at both ends and inside, through changes were minor. It continues to be offered in both short and long wheelbase versions. The larger van has more cargo volume and an increased payload capability of an additional 60 pounds over the smaller van's 1510 pounds. There are rear-door options - liftgate and panel truck style – as well as dual side doors. It’s available in XL and XLT trim.

Three engine choices are available, two of them new. One new offering is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, direct-injected flex-fuel (gasoline/E85 ethanol) engine producing 160 horsepower and 144 lb-ft torque, featuring 24 city/27 highway mpg. Also new is a 1.5-liter EcoBlue four-cylinder turbodiesel slated to arrive later in the model year. Auto stop/start is standard on both new engines. Six-speed automatic and new eight-speed automatic transmissions are offered. The Transit Connect’s carryover 2.5-liter Duratec four-cylinder engine features 169 horsepower and 171 lb-ft torque, delivering 20 city/27 highway mpg fuel economy. Fleet buyers can get the 2.5-liter engine prepped for propane or compressed natural gas conversions. The family of EcoBlue engines was developed by Ford engineering teams in the U.K. and Germany to replace the current Duratorq diesel engines. They offer improved fuel economy as well as reduced CO2 and NOX emissions.

2019 Transit Connect TaxiSince connectivity is important, especially for fleet managers who use it to enhance productivity, the Transit Connect has a standard 4G LTE modem capable of connecting 10 devices to the internet. A charger for wireless devices and two USB ports are also standard.

This compact van’s list of standard driver-assist features includes pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection, rear view camera, and automatic emergency braking with forward collision warning. Available systems include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, driver impairment monitor, and lane-keeping aid with lane departure warning. Standard Ford MyKey technologies allow fleet managers to preset warnings, set speed limits, and restrict audio volume. Also standard is a rear view camera, curve control, torque vectoring control, trailer sway control, and side-wind mitigation.

2019 Transit Connect Van

There’s a lot of talk these days about self-driving cars and their place in our driving future. While we are likely to see autonomous vehicles plying our highways in the years ahead, in the meantime many of the ‘smart’ technologies integral to self-driving cars are available in vehicles you can buy today. Focusing on accident prevention and driver convenience, their appearance is usually in higher-end vehicles first before they filter down to more affordable models, driven by popularity, major cost reductions, and government mandates. Fortunately, many new capabilities can be added easily by writing software that uses sensors, cameras, and other hardware already installed on a vehicle. Automakers can use the Internet of Things (IoT) to add this software over the air without requiring owners to take vehicles back to the dealer, just like Windows and Apple update your computer and smartphone. Yes, it’s a brave new world.

DRIVER DROWSINESS DETECTION helps prevent accidents. Fatigue can be measured by monitoring eye activity, changes in driving style determined by steering input, or a lane departure alert system showing a driver is often drifting from his lane. In more sophisticated systems drowsiness could be identified with sensors monitoring brain activity, heart rate, skin conductance, or muscle activity. A visual or audible warning may be issued or the driver’s seat may vibrate. More sophisticated monitoring techniques may also detect a medical emergency and call 911.

adaptive-cruise-controlBLIND ZONE ALERT systems typically use radar or ultrasonic sensors on both sides of the vehicle to “look” for cars, trucks, and motorcycles in side blind zones. These systems alert a driver with a flashing light in the side view mirrors and often with an audible sound or vibration of the steering wheel. If the turn signal in not activated to indicate you’re planning to change lanes, the mirror warning light glows to show there’s a vehicle in your blind spot but does not flash.

ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL augments a vehicle’s standard cruise control system to enhance safety. Once selected, it automatically adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead. The system’s radar, laser sensors, and/or cameras detect if you will be overtaking a vehicle in the lane ahead and automatically slows your speed if necessary. Your set cruise control speed resumes when traffic ahead allows.

collision-avoidance-systemCOLLISION AVOIDANCE SYSTEMS can prevent or reduce the severity of a collision by using cameras, radar, and sometimes LIDAR to detect an imminent crash. Once detected, the system provides a warning if a collision is imminent and can autonomously activate braking or steering, or both. If a driver does not react to a warning, the system pre-charges brakes and increases brake assist sensitivity to maximize braking performance. Most manufacturers plan to include automatic emergency braking as standard equipment on cars in the U.S. by 2022.

LANE DEPARTURE ALERT uses a specialized camera to detect painted lane markings and alert a driver that inadvertently strays out of their lane. An audible warning and indicator light on the instrument panel is typically used to warn wayward drivers, and sometimes a steering wheel vibration. In more sophisticated systems, Steering Assist will initiate corrective steering to help keep the vehicle in its lane if a driver does not take corrective action.

lane-departure-warningOBSTACLE AVOIDANCE SYSTEMS scan the road ahead with radar, ultrasonic sensors, and/or cameras for pedestrians, motorcycles, large animals, or other objects that are stopped or moving slowly. Initially, visual and audio warnings are given when a potential collision is detected by the sensors. If necessary, automated steering and braking maneuvers the vehicle to avoid a collision.

ANTICIPATING THE ROAD AHEAD is possible with GPS navigation data integrated with on-board systems. For example, navigation data can be used to control a transmission or set up suspension for a winding road ahead, or adjust for sporty driving, fuel economy, or comfort. In plug-in vehicles data can be used to identify sections of a route best suited for electric drive or for charging the battery.

real-time-traffic-informationREAL TIME TRAFFIC INFORMATION supplied by a traffic information service identifies accidents and other traffic delays by presenting this information on a navigation screen. The navigation system can calculate and recommend alternate routes to a destination that bypass the location causing a delay.

PARKING ASSIST enables hands-off automated parallel and often also perpendicular parking by controlling throttle, steering, and braking. The system scans to assure there is sufficient space and often locates vacant parking spots. Advanced systems may work with a real-time traffic information system to predict the odds of finding an open parking spot in a particular area, since looking for a parking space is a major contributor to traffic congestion in urban areas.

parking-assistPRE-SENSE SYSTEMS detect potentially unavoidable crashes with sensors from electronic stability and collision avoidance systems, blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, and rear cameras. A pre-sense event occurs in phases with a visual and/or audible warning so the driver can take evasive action, then brief automatic braking tells a driver to apply braking with brake assist enhancing deceleration. If a collision can’t be avoided maximum braking is applied, seat belts are pre-tensioned, hazard lights are activated, windows are closed, and airbags deployed to mitigate injuries.

REMOTE PARK ASSIST allows your car to autonomously park in a tight spot or a narrow garage. With this system, driver and passengers exit the vehicle once it is aligned with a parking spot. The vehicle is then slowly and autonomously moved forward using a remote control fob or smartphone. This capability is made possible by surround-view sensors that enable precise movement and positioning of the vehicle amid other cars or objects, using the same sensors and controls as those used by more familiar parallel and perpendicular park assist systems. Once parked, the car can also be turned off and locked remotely. The process is reversed to fetch the car when you want to leave.

vehicle-to-vehicleVEHICLE-TO-VEHICLE COMMUNICATION allows vehicles to “talk” with one another to exchange information like speed and GPS-derived location. The main benefit is accident avoidance, but once implemented this sophisticated network could also reduce traffic congestion. Vehicles share safety data 10 times per second to identify risks and provide warnings to avoid crashes. This kind of information can inform a driver in advance whether it is safe to pass on a two-lane road, make a left turn across the path of oncoming traffic, or if a vehicle is approaching at a blind intersection. Vehicle-to-infrastructure communication enables the transfer of data between vehicles and elements of the roadway infrastructure including speed limits and traffic lights. With advanced V2V and V2I systems, vehicles could autonomously take necessary actions to avoid a potentially serious incident or collision.

todd-kaho-leftThere is a strong push for self-driving autonomous cars sweeping the auto industry. It’s an interesting mix of competing companies merging with both the traditional car brands and the tech industry. The overriding assumption is that taking the driver out of the transportation equation is better for safety and the environment than human involvement in the operation of the vehicle.

Full disclosure right up front: I am not a fan of the idea of a car driving me rather than me driving the car. You see, the reason I fell in love with cars in the first place is rooted in the fact that I love to drive and want to stay connected to the road. And yes, I prefer a manual transmission over an automatic. The idea of climbing in a vehicle and telling HAL 9000 (reference from 2001: A Space Odyssey) where I want to go doesn’t have much appeal to me.

That said, I do like many of the technological advancements that are making self driving cars possible. They can contribute to both safety and efficiency. My favorite of those currently available is adaptive cruise control. With this technology the vehicle maintains a safe distance from the car or truck in front of you when the cruise control is activated. Most allow the driver to set the distance or buffer the car will follow. If you have the cruise control set on 65 and close on a semi that is doing 60 up a grade, the car will automatically slow to the speed of the truck in front of you. If you pull out to pass, your car will accelerate back up to the preset 65 mph speed if no other slower vehicles are ahead. Adaptive cruise control is becoming more and more common and works quite well.

Forward-facing radar is commonly used and sometimes laser and multiple video cameras as well to judge distance and closing speed. This technology can also safely bring the vehicle to a complete stop when approaching a stopped vehicle or other fixed obstruction. Automatic braking technology can be a life saver if a driver is distracted, falls asleep, or is otherwise incapacitated. And to think that is wasn’t all that long ago that antilock braking was the latest innovation, and now it is mainstream!

True autonomous cars, however, must have input from many other sources to know exactly what is happening all around the vehicle. Sensors to the side, for example, are used in modern lane detection and lane change anti-collision systems. These detect objects to the side of the vehicle and some read lane markings on the road. Most give an audible alert first to get the driver’s attention, but some will actually pulse the steering wheel if they think the situation is urgent. Vehicles currently use some of the same equipment to allow production vehicles to park with little driver input other than engaging the system.

A self-driving car needs to sense conditions 360 degrees around its perimeter. Multiple radars, sensors, lasers, GPS, and cameras must all work together for complete situational awareness. It’s a very complex business when you add in the ability to read traffic signals, watch for pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. Car-to-car communication is also a key element in making this all work together.

Naturally, this doesn’t come without additional complexity and expense. I look for a future with vehicles that will always have a steering wheel in front of me and at least two pedals at my feet, though three would be better.

ron-cogan-capitol-hillWhen it comes to chips, automakers are all-in. That is, the silicon variety and not those with which you can gamble away a fortune, something auto companies are loathe to do. Traditionally, the risks auto manufacturers undertake are carefully calculated and always rooted in the world of profit and market share. As they look to the future, their chips are increasingly riding on ‘green’ and ‘connectivity.’

Key to this is Silicon Valley, which for decades has been synonymous with the high tech world of consumer electronics, encompassing everything from computers and cellphones to software and apps. Today this storied list has expanded in important and unexpected ways to include technology that’s at the heart of the auto industry’s future. It’s here that auto manufacturers have forged strategic alliances with Silicon Valley icons like Google and Apple, plus noted tech companies like NVIDIA and an array of Silicon Valley start-ups that promise to bring new and exciting functionality to our vehicles.

Striking alliances with tech companies is an important direction for an industry that has been entrenched in its own world for well over a century. It’s so important, in fact, that many auto manufacturers have gone beyond just alliances, establishing dedicated research and development centers in Silicon Valley to tap the undeniable expertise here. We have seen surprising moves in recent times, like Toyota’s short-lived alliance with Tesla to develop the excellent, though quite expensive, battery electric RAV4 crossover a few years back. Sometimes things work out, sometimes not. But ventures like this are important to the journey as a future unfolds that will certainly find advanced electronics playing a major role in the cars we drive, or perhaps, to cars that drive themselves.

This is happening already with an increasingly sophisticated array of on-board electronics incorporated into new car models. As you might expect, much of this is showing up in higher-end vehicles first as technology costs are absorbed into the price of aspirational vehicles already expected to command a higher point of entry. As technology costs decrease, advanced systems like these tend to move down-market to more affordable vehicles. We’re already seeing this happening in real time.

In addition to the on-board systems we tend to take for granted today – such as navigation, back-up display, satellite radio, and Bluetooth cellphone integration – there’s a new generation of sought-after features that use a vehicle’s integrated cameras and sensors to perform wondrous tasks. Adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from the car ahead is one of these.

Beyond that is the latest generation of such systems with a stop-and-go function capable of automating the boring task of driving in urban gridlock. Lane minder systems that warn if you stray outside your lane are being enhanced with automated features that nudge you back where you belong. Automated parking is yet another popular feature in electronics-rich models. This is just the start as technologies like pedestrian avoidance systems make their way into new models, plus technology that automatically brakes or slows your car at intersections if another vehicle comes into your path.

All this is coming together to make our vehicles more fuel efficient, convenient, and safer as we drive toward a more connected future. Strap in because big changes are ahead.

2016-lexus-rx450h-frontThe Lexus RX 450h is a completely revised model this year featuring slightly larger dimensions, updated styling, and the signature Lexus spindle grille. A sportier F Sport model is also available for those who want to move even farther upscale on the SUV ladder.

This SUV’s hybrid system uses a 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V-6 with a 13.0:1 compression ratio to eke out 259 horsepower and 257 lb-ft torque. Augmented by a 165 horsepower electric motor, this front-drive propulsion system delivers a combined 308 horsepower. Opting for the all-wheel drive variant adds a rear transaxle with a second 67 horsepower electric motor. The front-drive RX 450h is EPA rated at 31 city and 30 highway mpg, with the AWD version earning 30/28 mpg.

2016-lexus-rx450h-cabinSofter springs, aluminum hood and door panels, and acoustic glass all combine to enhance efficiency and provide a pleasurable and quieter driving experience. An 8-inch EMV display, 12-speaker premium audio system with subwoofer, Bluetooth, HD Radio with iTunes tagging, and backup monitor are standard fare. A 12.3-inch screen is optional.

The RX 450h benefits from the growing array of advanced electronics and connected technologies being integrated in the Lexus line. Key additions this year include a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Adaptive Cruise Control. The latter maintains a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and brings the RX to a total stop if traffic comes to a halt.

2016-lexus-rx450h-action-rearThe list continues. A Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert keeps a driver aware of surrounding vehicles. Lane-Departure Assist will issue an alert to keep you on track and provide gentle steering input to bring you back into your lane if it senses you’re drifting.

While the base RX 450h is quite the looker, things heat up a bit with the optional F-Sport variant and its sportier styling, 20 inch aluminum wheels, unique grille and lower spoiler, and distinctive F-Sport badging. Inside, the F Sport gets unique gauges, aluminum pedals and trim, and exclusive F Sport seats. All this goodness comes at $3,400 above the model’s base $52,235 MSRP.

2016-lexus-rx450h-rear-seats

lexus-lc500h-actionInspired by the LF-LC concept unveiled by Lexus four years ago, the 2017 Lexus LC 500 is destined to become the automaker’s flagship coupe. Now it will be joined by a hybrid LC 500h variant. The model represents a shift in Lexus’ engineering and design direction, and thus marks the beginning of a new phase for the Lexus brand with several ‘firsts.’

The LC 500h features the world’s first Multi Stage Hybrid System, a next-generation hybrid powertrain specifically designed for performance vehicles. The system was developed with two opposing objectives: First, to provide a hybrid with a more sporting and engaging driving experience by closely aligning engine speed with throttle inputs. And second, to achieve the best possible balance between power and fuel consumption.

2016.02.08Like the non-hybrid LC 500, a 295 horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine is used in the LC 500h. The LC 500h adds a new lightweight and compact electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack, with a four-speed automatic transmission mounted at the rear of the hybrid transmission. A lighter electric motor offsets the added weight of the automatic transmission, meaning the Multi Stage Hybrid System weighs the same as Lexus’ current hybrid powertrain. An ‘M’ Mode offers the first driver-initiated gear shifts on a Lexus full hybrid powertrain. M Mode allows making direct and responsive gear shifts for the most sporting and engaging drive yet from a Lexus hybrid model.

The electric motor generates better acceleration feel than a conventional engine while adding physical gears more closely aligns engine rpm with driver inputs. The result is a much more direct connection between the accelerator pedal and vehicle acceleration. A total of 354 horsepower results in 0-60 mph times under 5 seconds.

2016.02.08The LC 500 and 500h are the first to use the automaker’s all-new, premium rear-wheel-drive luxury platform that will become the basis for the company’s future front-engine/rear-wheel-drive vehicles. For enhanced dynamic capability and performance, Lexus engineers focused on what they refer to as the LC 500h's ‘inertia specification.’ This places most of the vehicle mass, including the engine and occupants, as low and centralized as possible within the chassis.  Locating the powertrain behind the front axle results in a front mid-ship layout while very short front and rear overhangs push the large diameter tires to the vehicle corners.

Handling is enhanced by a center of gravity that’s further lowered by reducing body weight, in part through the use of an aluminum hood and fenders, aluminum door skins on a carbon fiber structure,  a carbon and glass composite trunk lid, and carbon fiber roof. Aluminum front suspension towers, forged alloy wheels, and ultra-compact LED headlamps also contribute. The model’s extensive use of a high-tensile steel body structure further reduces weight, improves weight-distribution, and increases body rigidity.  Run-flat tires eliminate the weight and weight-distribution penalty of a full-size spare.

lexus-lc500h-leadThe LC 500h's multi-link front suspension system allows for large diameter wheels while keeping a very low hood line. It features two upper and two lower control arms, with double ball joints on each arm. This arrangement optimizes suspension geometry to facilitate precise control from driver inputs and road conditions, creating exceptional steering response.

Included as part of LC 500h standard equipment is Lexus Safety System + to help prevent or mitigate collisions across a wide range of traffic situations. Combining a camera and millimeter-wave radar for a high level of detection performance, the system features a Pre-Crash Safety system with pedestrian detection to help prevent or lessen the severity of collisions, All-speed Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane-Keeping Assist, and Automatic High Beam headlamp technology are also included.

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