Technology keeps cars in control

People have less work to do in cars with an Adaptive Cruise Control system.
Thursday, September 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:11 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

In 1900, Columbia residents inched through town by prodding large, hairy animals. By 1950, they could cruise down Broadway in large, roaring machines of steel. Now they can do so without even touching a pedal.

A new technology called Adaptive Cruise Control is slowly trickling into Columbia’s mid-range car market. By automatically adjusting speeds to sync with traffic, ACC will move the car industry nearer to the renowned “K.I.T.T.” robocar that rid society of evil-doers in the 1980s hit television show “Knight Rider.”

ACC works with a radar sensor that screens cars in front and then adjusts speeds accordingly. For example, as a car ahead of you slows down, your car with ACC will automatically slow down, too.

Luxury vehicles, including certain Jaguars and Mercedes Benz, have had ACC for years, but it has been exclusive to the high-end car market until recently. Early next year Toyota’s new Avalon (expected in the $30,000 to $40,000 range) will have the ACC option. Automotive analysts predict ACC’s expansion to more affordable cars will continue over the next few years.

“It’s interesting technology,” said Tony Wening, 55, while shopping for cars at a local Toyota dealership. “I’d probably use it, but I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to get it.”

Although ACC isrestricted to highway driving, the technology eventually will work its way into urban stop-and-go driving, said John Wilkerson of TRW Automotive, a Detroit-area company that produces ACC technology.

“It’s more about convenience than safety, but it does help take some human error out of the equation,” Wilkerson said.

Other advantages of ACC could include reducing traffic jams by alleviating problems such as over-braking, which often cause long tie-ups, Wilkerson said.

ACC technology is still in its infancy, said Mike Marshall, a senior researcher with Detroit-based marketing information firm J.D. Power and Associates. Marshall said the technology will become increasingly common as its price comes down. ACC costs between $800 to $1,000, he said.

Convenient technologies such as ACC might have a greater impact on the new-car market than climbing gasoline prices, industry insiders say. “Most people see gasoline prices as fairly cyclical,” said John Tews, spokesman for the J.D. Power and Associates in Detroit. “Until they reach a threshold of $3 or more and stay there, gasoline prices will not affect buyer behavior. Gasoline prices really haven’t even affected SUV sales. This year SUV sales are actually up in all categories.”

Still, others remain skeptical of new robocar technology.

“More and more people are asking ‘why can’t cars just be simpler,’” said Kevin Towns of Albert Buick-Honda-GMC in Columbia.

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