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Your car is getting smarter

Computers playing larger role in vehicles

FRANKFURT, Germany — Computer-driven systems that steer out of skids, wake dozing drivers and soften collisions with pedestrians were among the safety innovations highlighted Wednesday at the Frankfurt International Auto Show — improvements that will soon be appearing in cars as sophisticated microprocessors are harnessed to protect people.

The new systems, to appear in the next two or three model years, are testimony to the increasing role computers are taking in today's vehicles.

The designers of the computerized safety systems are now seeking to exploit that trend and extend the gains made with air bags and antilock brakes.

Two U.S. firms — Delphi Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.'s TRW — are working on camera-computer combinations that can track lane lines and trigger a gentle reminder, like a vibrating steering wheel, to a sleepy driver if the car starts to drift. The system would automatically sense if the driver meant to turn by measuring the force on the wheel.

"Electronics have just opened up degrees of freedom in what you can do," said John Nurse, advanced engineering manager at Delphi's Wuppertal, Germany, technology center. "We want to devise systems that let people drive without accidents. That's the end goal."

But, he said, "that's not going to happen next year."

For now, the systems seek to stop some of the common causes of accidents, such as inattention on straight roads, following too closely and oversteering in skids.

The next generation of smart cruise control would actually bring the car to a stop and automatically edge forward in stop-and-go traffic, compared to current systems that just maintain a safe distance with a radar sensor. TRW, Robert Bosch GmbH and others are working on the systems, which should appear in the next several years.

Other computer systems actually take the wheel, if only for an instant.

Advanced ESP, or electronic stability program systems, sense skids and enhance or reduce drivers' corrective steering. Bosch's newest ESP system just went on the market in the new BMW 5-series while Continental AG is introducing a new version of its current system.

The system could prevent a rollover, for example, when a driver oversteers after suddenly realizing his car is drifting off the road, said James Renfrey, Bosch's senior manager for strategic system engineering.

"You don't feel a thing through the wheel," Renfrey said. "We're talking about panic situations; in this situation the driver is under extreme pressure and doesn't know what he needs to do or in what sequence."

In response to tougher U.S. air bag standards meant to reduce injuries caused by air bags, companies are experimenting with video systems than can identify if a passenger is too close to the air bag and reduce power or shut the air bag off. Current systems use seat sensors.

Pedestrian protection innovations are being driven by demands from European Union regulators to reduce head injuries that occur when a person is hit by a car.

Systems being developed by firms including Siemens VDO Automotive and TRW would open the hood a crack to give a softer landing by keeping the person's head away from the unyielding engine block, which is usually within about 2 inches of the hood.

The idea was tested in the 1980s, but is now being pushed to reality by the regulatory pressure and new technology.

The Siemens system, for example, uses a fiber-optic bumper strip that can sense what the object is, allowing the processor to determine whether it is an inanimate object or a person and trigger the hood accordingly.

"The remaining problem was to detect if it's really a person — or a garbage can," said Siemens VDO spokesman Johannes Winterhagen.