Multiple personality driving

In modern cars, a computer regulates the throttle and transmission. An increasing number of cars also have electrically boosted power-steering, and high-end models come with adjustable suspensions. Instead of having the processors running these systems run a single program, automakers implement different drive modes, letting the driver engage different drive programs at the touch of a button. The result is a car that can feel like a soft, luxury car on the freeway, then tighten up for some backroad sport driving.

The 2014 Lexus LS 600h L is one example, incorporating a number of different programs to suit a driver's mood and the road.


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Up-to-date business listings

Navigation systems in cars come preloaded with a database of points-of-interest, a listing of shops, restaurants, hotels, and gas stations. It's like having a digital phone book in the dashboard, but like an old phone book, the businesses listed tend to change. For current business listings, automakers are just beginning to implement online search. A driver can enter a search term using voice or the touch screen, and the car will show a list of matching local businesses from Google or Bing on its LCD. A simple command will then set one of the result's address as the navigation system's destination.

The new Nissan Sentra is one of the least expensive cars implementing this technology. Its clever system makes use of the driver's own mobile phone paired to the car through Bluetooth.


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Keep clear of traffic

Radio stations across the US have fielded an air force to report on traffic conditions, delivered to drivers over the airwaves periodically during rush hour. Now, drivers can see current traffic conditions overlaid on a digital map in their cars' dashboards. Aggregated from a new system of traffic probes and sensors, the car receives the data over FM or satellite radio frequencies. Drivers can check the clearest route home before pulling out of the parking lot, or let the navigation system automatically avoid areas of traffic congestion.

Almost every car with a navigation system offers traffic data these days. In the 2013 Kia Sportage, drivers can view traffic flow information and icons representing specific incidents on the map, and check out a list of nearby incidents, making it easier to find the quickest route. Avoiding traffic not only reduces frustration, but also saves fuel.


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Safer lane changes

For many decades, driving instructors admonished students that their side-view mirrors leave a blind spot, so it is necessary to turn one's head before making a lane change. Technology has a solution for this age-old problem: sensors that can "see" the area next to the car that the driver can't. Typically, when one of these sensors detects a car in the next lane over, it causes a warning icon to light up in the corresponding side-view mirror or A-pillar. This system does wonders for increasing driver awareness and promoting safety.

Acura placed the warning icon in the 2014 RLX on the car's A-pillar. In this driving situation, a trunk is in the right lane off the rear quarter of the car. The warning light signals the driver that it is not safe to change lanes.


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Virtual gauges

LCD panels have become ubiquitous as display devices in our lives, and are beginning to replace the traditional gauges that show drivers vehicle speed, engine speed, fuel level, and coolant temperature. These panels have the advantage of being configurable, not only reducing tooling costs for manufacturers, but also letting them program the panel to show different information depending on the car's drive mode.

As an excellent example of this feature, the 2014 Corvette Stingray's all digital instrument cluster shows a typical speedometer and tachometer arrangement when in normal drive mode, but change up to this racing data screen for track mode.


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Hands-free phone calls

There are all manner of hands-free systems for phones, but at no time is it more important to use one than while driving. Just about every new car comes with a Bluetooth hands-free phone system that lets drivers answer incoming calls by tapping a button, or place calls to a contact using voice command.

The example shown here, from the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, offers up all the functions from the touchscreen and from buttons on the steering wheel. It not only lets the driver see contacts, but includes a list of recent calls and a voice mail feature.


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The view behind

For years, drivers relied on rearview mirrors and craning their necks around when reversing, but these pre-digital methods of backing up didn't show the whole picture. Enter the backup camera, available in most modern cars, which gives a bumper-level view of objects immediately behind the car. Not only do backup camera improve safety, but also let drivers fine-tune parking by coming within inches of another car's bumper without making contact.

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-class shows a high-definition view of what's behind the car, and includes overlays showing the car's path based on wheel turn. Some cars add more camera to give a surround view, making it easier to park in tight spaces without banging in a fender.


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Hit the brakes

We all do our best not to hit things with our cars, but there are limits to human attention and perception. Automakers are beginning to implement forward sensors that never blink while scanning the road ahead. Combined with automatic braking, these systems mitigate or completely prevent collisions.

The 2014 Subaru Forester employs such a system, using two cameras set at the top of the windshield. A computer compares the two camera images to identify people, cars, and objects, determining how far they are ahead and the likelihood of a collision. At low speeds, under 20 mph, the system can prevent the car from hitting something, while at higher speeds it will mitigate the damage.


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