New directions in car safety and navigation

Automotive safety features are increasingly being developed to address emergencies, with communications technology a top priority. Photos: Car safety down the road

This article is the second in a three-part series; Wednesday's piece offered tech tips for wilderness survival. Coming Friday: a look at public-safety improvements in cell phone service. And here's information on how to help the James Kim family.

The car of the future won't just be more fuel efficient. It's likely to help you get where you trying to go even if you're facing dangerous conditions.

The ordeal of CNET's James Kim and his family in the backwoods of Oregon has consumers and automakers alike discussing what more can be done to improve the navigation and emergency-safety features of automobiles. There are no easy answers to the problem. Modern in-car emergency-communications systems like General Motors' OnStar or BMW Assist are helpful, but such subscription-based systems rely on cellular networks for connectivity, which often isn't available in thinly populated or remote areas.

Nonetheless, auto manufacturers, suppliers and government agencies are working on various new technologies that can aid in an emergency. The developments include everything from advanced navigation systems to emergency brake sensors to car-to-car wireless communication systems, which rely on a sensor network to warn vehicles (and, in turn, drivers) of inclement weather, road closures or accidents up ahead.

"People are spending more time in their vehicles than they ever have, so it makes sense to engineer more communications systems into your car, something that could communicate with your home or office, and adapt personal electronics assistants, like PDAs, and integrate them with the vehicle," said Nick Cappa, manager of advanced technology communications at DaimlerChrysler.

Cappa added: "You can be assured that all the car manufacturers are looking at a lot more ways of increasing communications with vehicles and the outside world."

According to experts, one of the most helpful technologies currently available are in-car navigation systems, which most automakers sell as an option for about $2,000. Nestled in the front dash, navigation screens display road maps of the majority of the country. The maps are culled from data stored on a DVD in the car. GPS locators then synchronize data on the car's whereabouts to cast the right map onto the screen. That information alone can lower a driver's likelihood of getting stuck somewhere, because the driver at least has a sense of direction and a path toward safety. (Even in a remote location out of range of a cellular connection, navigation systems can still download predictive maps that give drivers an idea where they are.)

But what's missing in that equation is up-to-date information on road closures, bad weather, traffic jams and accidents--data that can be key to avoiding a wrong turn. Experts say upcoming navigation systems will be more active, thanks to cellular or satellite links to real-time weather, road or traffic information that can be displayed over location maps. Satellite connections are typically more robust than cellular ones in remote locations.

"Next-generation navigation systems will have connectivity and map a certain state of the road, whether it's closed or snowy, or even traffic-heavy, to give you an understanding of conditions," said Arne Stoschek, who heads development of displays and sensors at the Electronics Research Lab at Volkswagen of America. For example, a stretch of road that's icy could be marked on the map in red, and roads without problems could be shown in green, he said.

Stepping up satellite service
Companies like XM Satellite Radio are already on this path. In the last two years, XM launched NavTraffic, a satellite-based service that overlays current traffic conditions onto maps in a car's navigation system. The service, which costs $13 per month, was first available in Honda's 2005 Acura RL and is newly available in the 2007 Nissan Altima, among others.

In early 2007 at the international Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, XM also plans to unveil a similar service for weather, tentatively called "Weatherlink," according to XM spokesman Brian Gluckman. It will overlay real-time weather information similar to a service available for boating, which must be highly accurate in the event of unexpected squalls. Weatherlink will be available through a car manufacturer and within handheld devices, yet to announced, he said.

Google and others are working on this technology, too. At CES earlier this year, Google and Volkswagen announced a partnership to develop future car navigation systems that feature three-dimensional, satellite-based maps connected to Google Earth. They showed off a prototype at CES with a touch-screen interface.

The companies, along with chipmaker Nvidia, are working on infusing lifelike graphical terrain maps, pulled from satellite images, with real-time data on traffic, routing and weather, as well as "automatic personalized content," according to the companies. With that kind of imagery, drivers could have a much better understanding of where they are and how to get out of a bad situation. It will be available in showrooms "in the near future," Google and VW said.

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