Driving Perks Set for the Road

By: Anthony Fontanelle

A vehicle that uses night-vision cameras, collision avoidance systems and a roving Internet connection sounds like the cross between a tank and an iPhone, but it could be your next car, said Siemens VDO, a leading auto supplier.

The Auburn Hills-based German company held its annual Electronics University this week to offer journalists and aficionados a look at what gadgets, safety devices and communication systems could look like in future vehicles.

Siemens said that future vehicles will have more active safety systems, would talk to each other and play better with cell phones, music players and all the other electronic devices that drivers, and their kids, are toting with them these days. Driving perks make things easier for everybody.

Vehicle entertainment systems will become more like iPods, with easy-to-use, intuitive controls rather than rows of buttons, said Frank Homann, Siemens vice president for interior electronics. And they could be equipped to complement BMW Z4 parts and other auto accessories.

And rather than being stocked with navigation systems, CD players and other quickly outdated devices, Homann said, future vehicles will be better at simply connecting to the toys that drivers already bring into the vehicle.

"Why do I need a $3,000 navigation system when I already paid $200 for the one on my cell phone?" Homann asked. "I already have my music, my contacts and my phone on this (smart phone) - I want it to work with my car." Drivers will be able to hook up their devices to in-vehicle touch-screen monitors, he added.

Aside from auto entertainment, car communication also is improving. The long-awaited concept of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-roadside communication could soon be realized in Metro Detroit, said Richard Wallace, the senior project manger at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. He said a demonstration area - which is being set up on the roads of Farmington Hills and Novi - is likely to show that cars talking to each other is technologically feasible.

The German auto supplier also flaunted a demonstration car that packaged three advanced safety systems together - adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and high-beam assistance.

The adaptive cruise control with Lidar, or light-based radar, ensures that the car maintains a safe distance from the vehicle in front of it while cruising. The lane departure warning, on the other hand, includes a special camera that monitors road markings and alerts drivers if they veer from their lane. The high-beam assistance uses the same camera that dims high-beam headlights as another car approaches. When the camera and the Lidar work together, the vehicle is capable of stop-and-go cruise control.

Devices are available individually, but packaging the three together provides more features, said Ron Cook, the Siemens account manager. "It's going to be these types of devices that will reduce the number of traffic fatalities," he said.

Active safety systems may not, however, be the booming business that many suppliers hope for, said Bill Rinna, the manager of technology forecasts for Northville-based auto analysts CSM Worldwide. "North American customers are less quick to pay more for safety products," he said. "These types of products are more popular on higher end cars and those sold in Japan and Europe."

What drew the most attention from participants was a night-vision system. "We have an aging population, and with that comes declining vision," Siemens spokesman Brad Warner said. "This technology addresses that trend." He said that this concept version of night vision should be more successful than previous incarnations because it depends on a single infrared camera to collect the image, rather than specialized headlights. That makes the system cheaper to build, maintain and repair.

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