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Ease on down the road

Ease on down the road

Driving on a rough road? Your road-sensing suspension system will automatically smooth out the ride. Stuck behind a fume-belching bus? An activated-charcoal filter screens out all such organic odors from your auto interior. Does a car down the road have its brights on? No matter--the electrochromatic rear-view mirror will automatically darken.

From computer-controlled seats to an in-car remote for your house lights, engineers are using the latest in electronics, sensors, and new materials to offer creature comforts behind the wheel. Some optional accessories even ensure that you don't waste time and energy by taking a wrong turn.

Easing fatigue. It's not uncommon for people to spend two or three hours in their daily commute; then, there are even more lengthy business or vacation drives. How to help keep drivers from tiring at the wheel?

One key: comfortable seats. At Johnson Controls, Plymouth, MI, engineers use sophisticated computer tools to determine what's "comfortable."

"There was too much subjectivity in determining what was 'comfortable,' and not enough scientific, biomechanical tools," explains Kuntal Thakurta, test engineer.

"John 3-D," a biomechanical computer model developed with Michigan State University, helps the company evaluate seat comfort and how a typical driver might sit and reach in a proposed seat design. Johnson Controls can also measure how real drivers "feel" in a prototype seat using a Pressure Distribution System--mats made up of thin flexible sensors to measure pressure points across the seat. Other tools examine muscle fatigue over time by measuring the rate of muscle firing, to check what muscles are fatiguing.

Johnson already offers features such as adjustable lumbar supports. But they've been testing a self-adjusting comfort seat with multiple sensors that determine where a driver's limbs, buttocks, and pressure points are and reshape the seat cushion and back for a custom fit. "The sky's the limit," Thakurta says. A "totally intelligent" seat could retail for an additional $300.

How else to keep drivers more relaxed? Some automakers are turning to power-assisted steering, the next step up from power steering. Instead of simply making the steering wheel easier to turn, this calculates road speed to keep steering effort constant. On the highway, little boost is given; when parking, there's a bigger assist.

Remote convenience. If you've got a remote-control garage door, it might be simple enough to stick the remote on your visor and use it there. But what if you've got two different ones--say, at your summer house? And what about the lights in your home?

Prince Corp., Holland, MI, has developed a universal remote which covers 200-400 MHz. It is first "trained" for the specific frequency of the driver's remote, and then knows to listen only for that frequency. It also knows when listening to jump to the most popular remote frequencies first, which gets to your frequency faster.

And, for added convenience, drivers with Stanley Corp. modules at home can buy a kit to use that same remote to turn house lights on and off from inside their cars. Available in a few 1995 luxury autos, the list of '96 cars with the device has tripled, says Prince Vice President Mike Suman. And, he says: "We've got some neat things coming up. There's going to be a whole new level of communications to and from the vehicles, from a variety of markets."

For hands-free communications, some high-end luxury cars feature voice-activated cellular phones. Once programmed, you need simply say "Call home," and the phone system dials for you--after automatically cutting off the radio or stereo, of course.

And for easy closing, Mercedes-Benz uses a pneumatic servo mechanism to pull a door fully shut once pressure is first applied to the latch mechanism. This means no more need for door slamming; and an end to doors locked half-open and half-closed because they weren't shut hard enough.

Finding your way. A network of satellites in the sky are helping keep drivers here on Earth from getting lost.

Some of the Global Positioning System navigation tools offer specific guidance on how to get from one point to another. The devices come complete with digital roadmaps and/or spoken instructions on when to turn where. For example, Oldsmobile's Guidestar, which debuted last year, features a moving map display and a synthesized voice which tells you exactly when to turn. The price tag, however, is not inconsequential: roughly $2,000.

Delco Electronics, Kokomo, IN, takes a less expensive approach this year, offering a streamlined GPS-based navigation tool built into an auto stereo system. Drivers can select a destination from a directory of addresses available on a PCMCIA card; then, an arrow consistently shows the driver whether the desired place is ahead, behind, to the left or right.

Why a navigation system inside the stereo? "In most North American vehicles, there's not an additional space for navigation equipment in the instrument panel," explains Randall Brunts at GM Delco.

Engineers had to deal with heat and RF issues as they crammed radio, cassette, and navigation electronics into a single, radio-sized case. The GPS receiver is enclosed in a tin shield to cut EMI, with a direct connect to the rest of the system and no exposure to the outside. The RF tuner is located on the opposite side from the GPS receiver, also to cut interference.

Future possibilities: one-touch "May Day'' emergency transmitter and traffic information. The current system retails for about $990, including AM/FM radio and stereo cassette.

Inclement weather. It can be a lot less fun to drive in rain or snow than on a sunny spring day. How to ease the stress and tedium of stormy weather? For winter driving, Mercedes offers engine coolant circulating up to the windshield, to prevent wiper blades from icing up and sticking to the glass. The lines also run by the wiper-fluid nozzles, keeping them from freezing shut.

Possibly coming soon from Schatz Thermo Systems in Germany: a "heat battery" that will warm up a car's interior in a few seconds, instead of having to wait minutes on a cold winter day for the heat to crank up.

The "battery" retains heat somewhat like a thermal coffee container, only more efficiently, using a salt solution and vacuum insulation. Heat stored in the "battery" is sent to the car's anti-freeze upon engine startup, warming it in just a few seconds--thus allowing near-instant heating of the passenger cabin. All three major U.S. automakers and several in Europe are reportedly testing the device, which could appear as another creature-comfort option later this decade.

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