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Getting Smarter About Driving (and Parking)

One area where we're already seeing progress involves cruise control. Mechanical cruise control systems have been around for decades, limiting driving speed to a preset level, but newer systems are getting smarter about it.

The latest adaptive cruise control systems monitor the distance to the car in front of you, and then adapt the car's speed as necessary. It used to be that you had to slam on the brakes or toggle off the cruise control when you ran into heavy traffic; adaptive cruise control systems do this for you and help you keep in step with the flow of traffic.

And there's more. Volvo's latest models include adaptive cruise control with a steering assist feature. This not only controls your car's speed, but also enables your vehicle to follow the car ahead, even if it changes lanes. That's pretty nifty.

On the safety side of things, many cars today come with lane assist systems that monitor your position in your lane and keep you from drifting into the adjacent lane. You may get a warning alert if you start to wander over or, in some luxury models, the car itself may take corrective action.

Taking the concept even further, more and more cars are offering some sort of collision avoidance system, alerting your or even activating the brakes when a front-end collision is imminent. For example, Ford's Collision Warning With Brake Support uses sensors in the front of the car to detect slower vehicles traveling in the same direction. If you're rapidly approaching a slower vehicle, the system flashes a row of red lights on the car's windshield. If you don't respond to this, the system sounds an audible alarm. If you still don't respond, the car automatically stomps on the brakes. Depending on how fast you're approaching the car ahead of you, the system may minimize damage and injury, or avoid a collision altogether.

Figure 2 Ford's Collision Warning with Brake Support system. (By Ford Motor Company from USA, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

How is all this accomplished? Typically through a combination of technologies working together. Backup cameras are becoming standard equipment on even low-end vehicles. Side-mounted "blind spot" cameras are used in lane change avoidance systems. Front-mounted cameras help to identify objects (such as pedestrians in your car's path. Proximity sensors let you know if you're getting too close to the cars around you, as do (in higher-end vehicles) radar and LIDAR systems. As these technologies become more cost efficient, it's easier for manufacturers to incorporate them into their vehicles -- even moderately priced ones.

Also becoming more common are parking assist systems. These systems help with the challenging task (for many) of parallel parking. For example, Volkswagen's aptly-named Park Assist system automatically detects the nearest empty parking space, measures the space, notes the current position of your car, and then carries out the optimum steering movements to put your car in its place. You still have to operate the accelerator and the brake during the process, but the car does all the steering.

Of course, most newer (and more expensive) technologies are initially introduced in higher-end vehicles. If you want to see the future of driving technology, just look to the luxury car manufacturers.

For example, Mercedes' S-Class cars include systems for autonomous steering, parking, accident avoidance, and even driver fatigue detection. Some BMWs feature video cameras that can read speed limit signs, and automatically keep your car under (or at) the proper speed. And the high-priced electric vehicles from Tesla Motors feature an AutoPilot mode that controls the car's steering, braking, and speed. Look at all these developments in concert and you can see that we're getting closer to the dawn of the self-driving car.

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