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The Smart Cars Ahead


Personal Business: CAR BUYING

THE SMART CARS AHEAD

When it comes to dreaming up features and gadgets to tickle the fancy of auto buyers, no idea is too high-tech--or low-tech--for carmakers. And the latest crop of what Detroit likes to call "surprise-and-delight features" runs the gamut.

In the ingenious-but-simple category, there's the ping-pong ball in the gas tank of the 1995 Chevrolet Lumina. This simple device stops pesky gasoline splash-back when you're filling your tank. When you're done pumping gas, the ball bobs up to seal the opening. Chrysler had the inspiration to add a narrow heating band to the front windshield of its new 1996 minivans. That's to keep the wipers from freezing to the glass in a winter storm--just when you need them most.

At the other end of the spectrum are satellite-linked navigation systems with mechanical voices that can direct you to unfamiliar destinations. The Guidestar navigator made by Rockwell International appears on some 1995 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight sedans as a $2,000 option in California and several other states. Volvo's Dynaguide Info System adds the latest traffic reports. Dynaguide goes on sale in Europe later this year, but won't be available in the U.S. until federal regulations on telecommunications are set, Volvo says.

PAL IN TEXAS. Or how about the cellular phone that dials 911 or roadside assistance for you in an emergency, then uses satellite information to tell rescuers your location? Lincoln's Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit (RESCU) will be available on the 1996 Continental luxury sedan for an as-yet undisclosed price. Pressing one of two emergency buttons marked by either an ambulance or a tow truck icon will alert a response center (that happens to be in Texas) to notify the nearest police, fire, or medical unit, or summon a tow truck anywhere in the U.S. that has cellular service. Meanwhile, the response center's staff will stay in touch with the motorist until help arrives. The system can also notify a previously designated list of family or friends. Thanks to technology from TRW, a similar "Mayday" system that automatically alerts emergency crews when the car's air bags deploy or its crash sensors are triggered will one day be available.

Other auto gizmos are aimed at easing the irritations of everyday life. Your array of home electronics can be mperated by a single, universal remote. Why not do the same from your car? The HomeLink transmitter, which operates three electronic devices--the garage door opener would be an obvious candidate--comes standard in the driver's visor of the Mitsubishi Galant LS sedan, and is featured on some versions of the new Infiniti I30 luxury sedan. Most Infinitis also come with a standard keyless entry fob that not only lets you open your car doors by remote control but, if pushed and held, will also roll down the windows--handy in warm climates.

Engineers also want to make it easier to get into and out of cars. Johnson Controls has taken it upon itself to design a "drop bolster" that automatically lowers the seat edge closest to the door when that door is opened. The company hopes the feature, not yet available, will appeal to older buyers and women in tight skirts.

BACK RUBS, TOO. Headrests are supposed to protect occupants from whiplash, but they only work if they're properly adjusted. Lear Seating soon hopes to be selling a four-way power headrest that uses ultrasonic sensors to determine the position of the head and adjust the height of the headrest every time the engine starts. Volvo, meanwhile, is testing a Lear seat that uses a back-massaging device developed by Ergomedics. The BackCycler moves a lumbar support slowly out and back to gently work the spine and reduce back fatigue. Ergomedics expects the device will be available on at least one vehicle by the 1997 model year, probably for $200 to $300 for both front seats.

To help drivers and passengers breathe easier, a fancy air filter is standard on Ford's 1995 Contour and Mercury Mystique compact sedans. The MicronAir system filters out pollen, dust, and other tiny airborne irritants. To protect car occupants from dangerous fumes when stuck in traffic or a tunnel, Robert Bosch Corp. hopes to sell its new electronic sensor: When the system sniffs air pollution entering a vehicle, it switches to air recirculation.

Meanwhile, Bosch sees no reason why a few raindrops should distract a driver's attention. The company has devised a system, not yet on the market, that automatically turns on the windshield wipers and closes the sunroof at the first sprinklings of rain or first flakes of snow. Then, it adjusts wiper speed to the amount of moisture. At this rate, how long will it be before engineers manage to design a car that can drive itself?Kathleen Kerwin


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