Crash control: Even cheap cars get luxury tech features

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

When the new 2014 Dodge Durango comes to market later this month, it will include a safety feature called the Adaptive Cruise Control, a system that brings the vehicle to a complete stop in heavy traffic, then starts it moving again when traffic clears.

The 2014 Chevrolet Impala has a similar system that slams on the brakes to avert an accident the driver might not have time to react to. And Toyota will make super-bright and energy-efficient LED headlamps standard on all versions of the all-new 2014 Corolla sedan.

These and other features underscore a dramatic trend in the auto industry – “a democratization of technology,” to quote Mark Fields, Ford Motor’s chief operating officer.

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Until now, for example, LED headlamps and radar-guided cruise control and collision avoidance systems have been luxury features – often at additional cost. But at an ever-faster pace, the latest safety, performance and creature comfort technologies have been migrating down from premium to mainstream, and even showing up on some entry-level models.

The new Nissan Versa Note, the Japanese maker’s smallest model, now features the Around View Monitor, which provides a virtual birds-eye view that makes it possible to see obstacles, whether a curb or a child’s tricycle, otherwise hidden from sight. The same system was first introduced on the maker’s top-line Infiniti brand models.

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Unlike traditional luxury accoutrements, such as leather seats and wood trim, most of these new, premium technologies flooding the market rely on basic electronic components, such as microprocessors and vision, laser, radar and sonar sensors – which cost less as their volumes increase.

“Suppliers may offer a new technology to a luxury maker for a year or two, but then they go mainstream because they need the volume to continue to develop new technology,” said David Sullivan, an auto analyst with AutoPacific.

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Cross Traffic-Alert, first offered on the BMW 7-Series, appeared, less than a year later, on the 2010 Ford Taurus.

What makes it even easier to migrate new technologies down-market is that many breakthroughs rely on little more than new software to add desirable functionality. When Nissan decided to offer several safety features, such as Blind Spot Detection to mainstream models like the midsize Altima, it was able to skip adding new cameras and sonar or radar sensors, instead relying on the existing rear-view camera. All it took was new software code and a low-cost sprayer – much like a conventional windshield washer – to keep the lens clean.

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One area where prices have remained stubbornly high is with in-car navigation systems, and on many vehicles, it is still an option of more than $1,000. But prices are beginning to tumble, in part because so many vehicles already feature the requisite touchscreen displays, anyway. Some versions of the little Chevrolet Spark minicar can add a navi feature for about $50. In this case, the maker uses a novel approach, replying on a linked smartphone app, rather than software actually embedded in the vehicle itself.

The 2014 Toyota Corolla benefits from the rapid decline in price in LED technology. While it’s the first mid-level model to make the energy-efficient lighting system standard, few expect it to stand alone for long. The new Durango, meanwhile, uses 192 smaller LEDs to illuminate its so-called “racetrack” taillights.

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“LED costs are falling rapidly,” as are other premium lighting technologies, said Joe Dehner, a senior Chrysler designer.

The new BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car will offer the latest breakthrough, laser lighting. Industry observers say they wouldn’t be surprised to see that in midrange models well before decade’s end.

How far will this democratization trend go? Both Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz are pushing to develop autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles. But Nissan has already committed to bringing a fully autonomous vehicle to market by 2020. And rather than offering it on a premium Infiniti model, Andy Palmer, global product development chief, last month promised it will debut on an “affordable” model, most likely the next-generation version of the Nissan Leaf battery car.