Hard-Driving High Tech: Computer-driven features add pizzazz to 2006 autos

Driving a new car is becoming a lot less like touring around in your father?s Oldsmobile and a lot more like traveling with your personal computer, cell phone and address book balanced on your dashboard. Today?s technology lets you take your life on the road with you while leaving your hands free to steer, save for those precious moments when you feel the need to, er, gesture at a fellow driver. Even simple tasks like opening doors and turning on the headlights have gone high-tech. For example, even a budget-priced sports utility vehicle such as American Suzuki Motor Corp.?s 2006 Grand Vitara comes with a remote-controlled, keyless entry system. The top-of-the-line luxury package adds a remote-controlled, keyless ignition, a nice convenience for warming up the vehicle from inside your home on cold days.

NavigationNavigation Systems
Quickly disappearing are the days when wayward drivers have to pore over unwieldy paper maps to figure out just how lost they are. While today?s in-dash navigation systems are beginning to resemble aircraft cockpit controls, many are actually getting easier to use thanks to voice technology. The 2006 Lexus RX 400h hybrid luxury utility vehicle from Toyota Motor Corp. offers the Lexus DVD Navigation System, which includes a global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver. The GPS receiver downloads signals from GPS satellites circling the Earth and sends the data to the navigation system, which then pinpoints your current position, accurate to within 100 feet, on an on-screen map. Street map data for the United States and Canada are contained on a DVD disc that comes with the system.

Using the color touch screen in the dashboard, you can tap in the address of your destination and have the navigation system generate a street map of a route to the location. The system offers audio commands such as ?Turn left!? and lets you know that you?re approaching your destination a little early so you can search for parking. You can also talk back to the system, since it understands more than 100 voice commands. A small speech-command button on the steering wheel turns on the voice functions.

Home and Hybrid Technology
The Lexus RX 400h also has a HomeLink universal transceiver mounted on the driver?s-side visor. The unit can operate up to three remote-controlled devices, such as a garage-door opener or a home-security system. Of course, the RX 400h is a hybrid vehicle that runs on gas or electric power or a combination of both. The power from a 288-volt nickel metal hydride battery hidden under the rear seats is converted electronically to deliver 650 volts of AC power to three electric motors. These electric motors allow generators to charge the battery when the vehicle is using gasoline power.

Hybrid vehicle technology leads to an interesting reversal when it comes to gasoline efficiency: Hybrid cars usually get better mileage in stop-and-go city driving than they do on the highway. The Lexus RX 400h is rated at 31 miles per gallon (mpg) in city driving but just 27 mpg on the highway.

Video and Vision
Technology can help protect people outside a car as well as those inside. Nestled above the rear license plate holder of the Lexus RX 400h is a back-up video camera. When you put the vehicle into reverse, the camera comes on and transmits a live color video image of what?s behind the vehicle to the dashboard touch screen.

American Honda Motor Co.?s 2005 Acura RL luxury sedan comes with extra bright, highly focused xenon headlights that actually move as you steer the car around a curve. As you turn, one headlight turns up to 20 degrees in the direction of the turn while the other remains stationary.

Collision Avoidance
The 2006 Acura RL sedan also comes with something new in American cars: a collision-avoidance system that can actually activate the car?s brakes automatically. A millimeter-wave radar mounted in the front end of the car monitors the distance between your car and the one ahead. The collision-avoidance system uses this data to see if the car is closing in on the vehicle ahead at an unsafe speed. Acura?s collision mitigation braking system (CMBS) offers three levels of protection. If the system detects that you?re getting too close to the car ahead, it gives audible and visible alerts as well as a tactile alert you can feel in the steering wheel. If the situation gets worse, the system can apply light braking. If the system detects that you?re approaching the vehicle ahead so fast that a collision is probable, the system tightens all seat belts and slams on the anti-lock brakes.

The CMBS is part of an optional technology package that also includes adaptive cruise control. When engaged, this cruise control technology not only maintains a constant speed on the open road but also uses the radar to speed up or slow down your car based on its distance from the vehicle ahead. With this technology, you don?t need to disable cruise control if you run into slower traffic. The RL offers a five-speed automatic transmission that can be controlled with a shift lever or with paddle controls on the steering wheel.

Cell Phones and iPods
The Acura RL also comes with HandsFreeLink, a wireless speakerphone system that works with cell phones that offer Bluetooth networking. Bluetooth is a simple wireless technology that lets you wirelessly link nearby devices like a cell phone to a wireless hands-free headset or a laptop computer to a printer. By following instructions on the dashboard?s color display, you can pair your Bluetooth-capable cell phone with the speakerphone system. Once paired, you can answer phone calls by touching a button on the steering wheel or on the touch screen. The system can import phone numbers and addresses from your phone, thus allowing you to dial calls from the touch screen.

If you?ve been out of your car long enough to ride a commuter bus or train, you know that Apple Computer Inc.?s iPod digital music players are popular commuting companions. Many automakers have taken note of the iPod?s popularity and now include iPod-ready docks or cables in the glove boxes of their 2006 model year cars so that drivers can connect their iPods to their car?s audio systems. Most of today?s iPods, even the new, extra slim iPod nano, use the same connector, thus making it possible for automakers to offer a single dock or cable solution that works with most iPods. As of early fall of this year, iPod integration was available or was expected to be available soon in autos from Acura, Audi of America, BMW Group (BMW and MINI), Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes- Benz, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (Nissan, Infiniti), Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. (Scion models), Volvo Cars of North America LLC and Volkswagen of America Inc.

The good news is that high tech doesn?t mean high prices. Today?s high-tech auto options will be tomorrow?s standard gear soon enough.