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Analysis: Newest innovations in auto industry

By Larry Printz, The Virginian-Pilot –

NEW YORK — When was the last time you bought a new car or truck? If shoulder pads were fashionable, you’re in for a surprise when you walk into a new car showroom. Even if it’s been only five years since your new set of wheels, you’d be amazed at the technology missing in your car.

Today’s cars can tell you the exact tire pressure on each wheel or report your average fuel economy. But that’s small potatoes given that on average, new cars and trucks have 23 CPUs on board. Knowing that, you may not be surprised that your next car will be able to read your text messages, adjust the suspension on a windy day, or recharge itself wirelessly.

And if you’re looking for a button on the center console to control the climate you might not find any; some vehicles have touch sensitive panels like an Apple iPhone.

These are some of the options you’ll find on upcoming cars and trucks:

—Hands-free text messaging: Nissan introduced Nissan Connect, which uses the driver’s Bluetooth phone to provide connectivity to streaming audio and the Web. Nissan Connect will include a hands-free Text Messaging Assistant, which can read incoming texts out loud. The driver can respond via voice recognition, or through the steering wheel switches that have pre-set answers such as “driving, can’t text” and “on my way.” Other automakers, such as General Motors, BMW and Ford, offer similar systems. Offered on 2013 Nissan Altima; Ford, GM and BMW models.

—Rear-seat iPad docking: This new option holds an Apple iPad in place behind the front seat headrests. The iPad docking station tilts and rotates up to 90 degrees, charged by the vehicle’s electrical system. It fits most Mercedes-Benz models, including the redesigned 2013 GLK SUV.

—Wireless induction charger: While drivers are only now wrapping their heads around refueling a car by plugging it in, Infiniti’s 2014 LE electric concept car can be recharged using a built-in wireless charging system. Simply park the LE over a charging pad, which is connected to a power source. A coil encased in the pad creates a magnetic field that excites electric current in a second coil in the car, recharging the battery pack.

—Ambient night lighting: Low-level LED lighting illuminates at night, bathing the car’s cabin in a soothing glow, not unlike a fashionable nightclub. More a function of fashion than safety, it’s now common on many luxury cars and is trickling down as an option on less-expensive vehicles.

—Automatic start-stop: First seen on gas-electric hybrid vehicles, this fuel-economy feature is spreading to conventionally powered vehicles. The system shuts off the car’s engine when the vehicle comes to a stop. Once the driver’s foot lifts from the brake pedal, the car restarts. While the engine does shut off during a stop, accessories such as climate control and audio systems still function. Offered on various GM, Porsche models among others.

—Capacitive switching: If you’ve used an Apple iPhone, you’ve used a capacitive switch; it’s a type of touch screen that’s replacing conventional automobile switches. For instance, when you touch the flat surface of the instrument panel with your finger on the air-conditioning label, you’re changing the charge of an electromagnetic field, which instructs a processor in the car to make the air cooler. Offered on 2013 Cadillac XTS and various Ford models.

—Cross-traffic detection: Ever backed out of a parking spot only to narrowly miss being hit by a car coming down the aisle? This feature, first seen on Volvo and Ford vehicles, uses sensors arrayed around the car’s exterior to sense when a vehicle is approaching yours from the left or right. The same sensors are also used for such options as blind spot detection, to warn when a car is your blind spot; and automatic cruise control, which slows down or speeds up automatically to a preset speed and following distance. Offered on 2013 Toyota Avalon and other new models.

—Crosswind stabilization: This new feature adjusts the suspension to stabilize the car when a crosswind is detected. The amount of damping applied by the suspension varies depending on the force of the wind. It’s part of Mercedes-Benz’s optional Active Body Control system, which has been available on Mercedes-Benz S-Class and CL-Class models. It’s now offered on the 2013 GL-Class SUV.

—Customized instrument cluster: First seen on the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ hybrids, an instrument cluster that can be customized will be offered on the new Dodge Dart and Nissan Altima. Certain bits of information, such as the speedometer, can’t be changed. But other items, such as fuel economy or tire pressure, can be customized to be shown in the display.

—Front center side airbags: The 2013 Chevrolet Traverse is fitted with the auto industry’s first front center air bag. Mounted on the inboard side of the driver’s seat, it inflates between front seat occupants to provide additional protection in side-impact crashes by protecting the person on the side of the vehicle from being struck by the side not being hit.

—Panoramic sunroofs: In 1954, the Ford Skyliner and Mercury Sun Valley hardtops were equipped with large fixed Plexiglas sunroofs. Fifty-eight years later, glass roofs are reappearing. While Mercedes-Benz offers them on the SL and SLK hardtop convertibles, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ glass roof is unique. The whole roof opens, sliding rearward over the rear window.

—Push-button transmission: This system differs from the system used by Chrysler products from 1956 through 1964. Today’s transmissions are electronically controlled, so Lincoln uses buttons to engage park, neutral, reverse, and two forward gears: drive and sport. The Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck sports a gear dial for 2013, rather than a shift lever. Offered on 2013 Lincoln MKZ, 2013 Dodge Ram 1500.

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