A wide world of technology available to motor vehicle buyers in 2014

Northern Californians looking to buy a new vehicle in 2014 will find a blizzard of in-car technology available to them – much of it designed to keep them safe and alert. And they will see plenty of those high-tech features in moderately priced cars built by automakers once known for producing cheap, bare-bones transportation.

Beyond that, as evidenced by last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and more to come at this week’s opening of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, automotive technology of a decidedly “Star Wars” nature is in the pipeline: cars that drive themselves, vehicles that function as rolling communications centers, and autos with comfort and convenience features so advanced that you might be tempted to spend the night in your car.

“Technology is integrating our lives into our cars. I think that’s what wows you now,” said auto industry expert Jesse Toprak, head of the Toprak Consulting Group in Encino. “... Consumers are becoming more comfortable with technology in their cars. It’s not just early adopters. Consumers are more at ease with the technology.”

Consequently, automakers and electronic/tech companies are rolling out perks at an unprecedented pace. Safety enhancements are particularly hot.

Mercedes-Benz and Toyota are among those touting precollision safety systems that automatically warn drivers of imminent collisions, with warning sounds, tightened seat belts and brake applications. There are various blind-spot warning systems, which emit audible signals or flash lights if you are about to make a lane change into a car you cannot see in your mirrors.

Honda takes things a step further with its LaneWatch system, which uses a camera mounted on the passenger-side exterior mirror to display real-time images of the vehicle’s right-side blind spot on an 8-inch color dashboard display. The image appears when the right turn signal is activated, or when a button on the end of the turn signal stalk is pressed. Honda says the typical field of view for a passenger-side exterior mirror is about 18 to 22 degrees, but LaneWatch widens that to about 80 degrees, a view that can help drivers avoid not only cars, but also bicycles and pedestrians.

Rear-view cameras, which display on a dash-mounted screen what is behind a car when it is in reverse, are common in 2014 models. Some consumer advocates want them required in all vehicles to prevent the deaths of children hit by cars backing out of driveways; in many cases, the victims are the children of the car owners.

Many safety systems are old hat to longtime buyers of Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Audi and other high-end brands. But now, many of the same systems are in moderately priced 2014 vehicles.

Toprak noted: “Now, in a midsize car for $30,000, you can have the same (technology) that would have cost you double the money just five years ago.”

In the highly competitive retail car market, technology is as big a selling point as fuel mileage and horsepower were in years past. South Korea’s Hyundai is a primary example of the trend.

A generation ago, Hyundai was known as a maker of deeply discounted, no-frills small cars. Its 2014 Equus sedan is light years removed from those days.

The Equus, offered in two trim levels with starting prices ranging from $61,000 to $68,000, is equipped at a level resembling cars made by Lexus and Mercedes, including electronic active front head restraints, a digital heads-up readout that shows vehicle speed and the presence of cars rolling close to your left and right rear bumpers, and a navigation system capable of incredible detail (including cemeteries marked by a tombstone icon).

“It shows you how much things have changed,” Toprak said. “Hyundai has been bringing a lot of car for your money to consumers, and growth has resulted.”

But has the ever-increasing presence of in-car safety technology made a profound difference in highway safety? That’s a tough question to answer.

What is known from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics is that, with the exception of an increase in 2012, highway fatalities have been declining since 2005. NHTSA statistics show 43,510 traffic crash deaths nationally in 2005. There were 33,561 fatalities in 2012, up 1,082 from 2011. NHTSA noted that 2012 saw increases in pedestrian deaths and motorcycle rider fatalities, and that even with the uptick in 2012, highway fatalities were at the same level as they were in 1950.

Statistics for 2013 are still being compiled, but the estimated total of 15,470 traffic fatalities in the first half of 2013 was down 4.2 percent from the same period in 2012.

Highway-safety experts say there is no comprehensive data linking safety systems to specific numbers of lives saved. Also, broader reasons are cited in the nearly decadelong decline in fatalities – structural improvements in cars over the past 10 years and law enforcement programs that have cracked down on drunken driving. Nevertheless, safety systems typically draw praise from experts.

“Consumers who want both crash-prevention technology and the latest in occupant protection have a fair number of vehicles to choose from,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent organization dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries and property damage from roadway crashes. “We hope manufacturers will continue to incorporate front-crash prevention, developing more robust systems and adding them to more trim levels or, better yet, making them standard equipment.”

Beyond safety technology, the sky is the limit. Automotive technology dominated the CES event last week in Las Vegas. In past years, smartphones, video devices and carry-in-your-pocket tech toys stole the spotlight. This year, more than half the media releases involved some form of automotive technology.

Real-time info, connectivity and autonomous travel were big this year.

At CES, BMW touted ConnectedDrive systems for its new i3 and i8 electric vehicles, employing an Inrix Inc. navigation service to integrate local public transport connections into route planning. The service monitors real-time traffic conditions, alerting drivers to faster alternative modes of transportation when major delays occur on their routes. Upon selecting an alternative mode, the system provides turn-by-turn navigation to the nearest public transport station in time for the next departure.

Visteon showed off an “OpenAir” connected audio solution, delivering Bluetooth, voice control and an integrated smartphone connection to cloud applications. “Industry forecasts predict more than 150 million connected cars on the road by 2020,” said Martin T. Thall, president of Visteon Electronics.

Ford said its recently introduced 2015 Mustang, the newest generation of the iconic pony car that will go on sale widely later this year, will include the next-generation Sync AppLink system, enabling drivers to launch applications on mobile devices more quickly by pressing a voice button on the steering wheel and simply saying the name of the app.

Other companies showed off future in-car systems controlled by hand gestures or eye movements. Further up the road: a developing technology enabling your driverless car to find its own parking spot, then pick you up at a designated spot once notified via a smartphone. Autonomous cars capable of getting drivers to their urban destinations without human guidance also made waves at CES, with more to come this week at the NAIAS in Detroit.

Auto industry experts concede that self-driving cars and vehicles linked to smartphone apps are not necessarily going to be welcomed by old-school motorists who relish the idea of hitting the open road to escape a data-laden world. Then again, technologies that once seemed exotic are now mainstream. Toprak says it’s all part of a process.

“It’s just like any other technology. People tend to adapt to it once they use it or see someone they trust using it,” Toprak says. “When you see a family member using a (type of automotive technology) and not get killed using it, and see that’s making their lives easier, then you tend to adopt it. You know you can trust the car to keep you safe.”