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Under the Hood: Cars getting smarter all the time

By Brad Bergholdt, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

QUESTION: I was wondering just how smart new cars are, computer-wise. Are they as smart as my smartphone or laptop?

—Gene Lathrop

ANSWER: I’m not qualified to answer your second question but can have a lot of fun sharing what I’ve learned regarding the first.

Modern cars and trucks are super-smart. They adapt to driver styles, environmental conditions and degraded component operation in order to provide the smoothest acceleration, idle and shifts. Your powertrain control module, or PCM, scrutinizes each transmission shift, looking at the rate of rpm change on input and output shafts. If it’s not perfect, hydraulic pressure is adjusted for the next clutch application, and again if needed until it becomes just right.

The PCM also looks at a huge number of engine inputs to infer exhaust emission compliance. Should anything comes to light that could mean emission levels will be exceeded, the dreaded “check engine” light is illuminated and a code is set indicating close to the exact cause. A record of the actual driving conditions present at the time is also recorded, for the servicing technician’s benefit.

The climate-control system shares information with the navigation and safety systems in order to determine your course, time of day, sun load and sun position, and where people are sitting. Adjustments are made to left, right or rear air temperature delivery to compensate for not just cabin temperature, but how the sun feels. Built-in diagnostics monitor component function and indicate specific faults, should they occur.

Your safety systems are another area brimming with smarts. Seat sensors indicate occupant weight and position, allowing appropriate control of airbags. Should a passenger slump against the door, perhaps napping, the side curtain airbag would be told to stand down in a crash. Collision-mitigation and cruise-control systems benefit from forward scanning radar. Should a threat or insufficient vehicle spacing become imminent, vehicle power reduction and braking may be automatically called to action. Lane-departure systems may use video, laser and infrared sensors, as well as cameras, as inputs to pattern and object-recognition processors to determine if a driver error is occurring. A stern warning, such as a tone, steering-wheel vibration or gentle steering correction will get the driver’s attention and hopefully set things straight. Blind spot monitoring may also use radar and cameras to keep you informed of trouble outside of your mirror’s viewing area.

Probably the smartest feature I’ve seen is self-parking. I got a chance to play with a Lexus LS460 sedan about six years back at a Toyota technology presentation. After picking some really cramped and less-than-ideal parking spots — I wouldn’t have tried them manually even in a smaller car — the system would either steer the car brilliantly into them, or politely refuse. Perhaps a silly and expensive feature, but you have to marvel at the smarts!

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