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What makes a digital car digital?

David Hasselhoff (as Michael Knight) poses with K.I.T.T., the high-tech star of "Knight Rider." See more exotic car pictures.
Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/ Getty Images

Television has had a long fascination with the concept of intelligent automobiles. The 1965 to 1966 series "My Mother the Car" portrayed the travails of a hapless family man who discovers that his mother has been reincarnated as his wisecracking 1928 Porter automobile. In 2002, TV Guide named the series the second-worst television show of all time [source: AP].

While that series may have failed, interest in cars that are smarter than their drivers didn't wane. The 1980s TV series "Knight Rider" perhaps came closest to what viewers wanted in an intelligent car. Rather than being possessed by a reincarnated soul, this car, K.I.T.T. (Knight Industries Two Thousand), was controlled by high-tech computerization. With undercover agent Michael Knight behind the steering wheel, K.I.T.T. provided support for him week after week as Knight apprehended bad guys. K.I.T.T., a Pontiac Trans-Am, wasn't only capable of high speeds -- it was armed with flame throwers and could navigate out of dangerous situations. In 1982, K.I.T.T. was the pinnacle of high-tech.

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Soon, the computer age brought new breakthroughs in digital technology. With the advent of wireless communication and compressed data storage, what was once limited to the imaginations of TV writers became available for general consumption. You'd be hard-pressed to find a car on a dealer's lot equipped with flame throwers, sure. But there's a lot of other K.I.T.T. features in cars today. Automobiles have zoomed into the digital age.

What exactly makes a digital car digital? Intelligence. New features have transformed the car from a mere vessel that transports you from point A to point B -- now, cars get you there more easily, safely and even keep you entertained along the way. Cars have come to resemble computers on wheels. Cadillac even offers 40 gigabyte hard drives on its 2008 CTS model [source: Detroit News].

Find out some of the ways auto manufacturers are making cars intelligent on the next page.

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In 2006 in Japan, Toyota demonstrated some of its precrash features, including head rests that adjust to prevent whiplash.
In 2006 in Japan, Toyota demonstrated some of its precrash features, including head rests that adjust to prevent whiplash.
Toru Yamanaka/Getty Images

So what makes an intelligent car intelligent? There's the Smart Car, but that name refers to the buyer's decision to choose a fuel-efficient, low-emissions car rather than any digital aspect. To create a truly intelligent car, auto engineers have focused on ways to manufacture automobiles that use computer-based solutions as answers to problems that have been around since cars were invented -- like danger and boredom. The high-tech gadgetry in today's most digitized cars centers around two main categories: safety and entertainment.

Up first is safety. The development of fast cars has outpaced safety technology. It wasn't until 1966 that federal law required seatbelts to be installed on all new vehicles manufactured in the United States [source: Prevention Institute]. Airbags weren't introduced as a standard feature on most cars until the 1990s [source: Esurance]. Yet, engine design has produced faster, more powerful vehicles at a breakneck pace.

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With digital cars, the goal is to not only protect a car's occupants in an accident -- like seatbelts and airbags do -- but also to prevent collisions altogether. Some luxury cars use wireless, infrared, and camera technology that keeps an eye on the cars around you while you drive. Called precollision systems, these outfits detect rapidly approaching objects ahead, such as deer or stopped cars, via cameras, lasers or infrared sensors. Warning lights and alarms alert you to an impending collision. The car's onboard computer adjusts the brakes to provide intense stopping power with just a little pressure applied by your foot. Seatbelts may automatically tighten, headrests move forward to protect against whiplash and seats adjust to an upright position.

In the highest-end precollision systems -- like the one in the Lexus LS -- cameras look for traffic up ahead, and another camera mounted in the steering wheel analyzes your face for attentiveness to oncoming obstacles. If the integrated computer determines that a collision may occur before you have a chance to respond, the car can actually brake for you [source: Consumer Reports].

Knowing what you're about to collide with before you even see it is definitely digital. The use of infrared night vision technology was first introduced in cars onboard the 2000 Cadillac DeVille. The night vision looked beyond the headlights, displaying images on a dashboard screen for the driver. The equipment extended reaction time for night driving at 60 miles per hour from 3.5 seconds to a full 15 seconds [source: New York Times­].

Next-generation infrared sensors in current Lexus models detect heat hundreds of feet ahead of the car-- be it a person, deer or another car -- and digitally display the images on the windshield [source: Consumer Reports].

This technology also comes in handy for blind spots. Some cars of the digital age offer blind spot detection systems. These use cameras and infrared sensors, usually mounted on the cars side view mirrors, to keep an eye on the cars you can't see. Signals mounted within sight to the side view mirrors flash when a car enters your blind spot [Seattle Times].

But some digital cars are designed to do more than get you home safely -- they're also keeping drivers entertained and connected. Read about wireless Internet on the open road on the next page.

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BMW created the first car with an iPod dock, and other manufacturers followed suit. Volvo displays its iPod connection at the 2005 New York City Auto Show.
BMW created the first car with an iPod dock, and other manufacturers followed suit. Volvo displays its iPod connection at the 2005 New York City Auto Show.
Jonathan Fickies/Getty Images

Driving can be a lot simpler if you know where you're going. Like K.I.T.T., digital cars have navigation systems -- and these onboard guides are about to get even more sophisticated. Next-generation onboard navigational systems will have 3-D overviews of your route and destination. Soon, you'll be able to get real-time traffic reports from other drivers; ultimately, navigation systems may become a wireless network of cars sending information to one another [source: CNet]. As this information database is expanded and updated in real time, your navigation system will even be able to guide you to the gas station with the cheapest fuel.

These cars aren't just guiding drivers over long stretches of road. Another high-tech feature, auto valet, uses satellite images to guide you into parking spaces -- even tight parallel spots. Once you enable the electric power steering, just sit back: The car uses sensors to detect objects around it and powers the car to pull smoothly into your chosen space. No hands, literally [source: New York Times].

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Of course, the digital car isn't just about navigation and a parallel parking help. While BMW was the first auto manufacturer to offer an integrated iPod connection in its cars in 2004, 40 percent of today's cars have docks [source: CNN Money]. And it's more than just tunes entertaining drivers -- and passengers. DVD players are common in minivans and SUVs, and some have inputs for video game consoles. But what about surfing the Web from anywhere? That's on the way.

Digital cars just over the horizon will feature mobile wireless internet service providers (ISPs) that can keep up at highway speeds, rather than just allowing you connect in hot spots. Automakers may soon add the ISPs to their onboard hard drives [source: TechNewsWorld]. With a mobile ISP, passengers could play World of Warcraft online with remote friends during the drive to Disney World.

The addition of integrated entertainment gadgets in passenger cars has raised some concerns about road safety. After all, if you can access your e-mail while watching a DVD and answering a call on your cell phone, all the while cruising along at 70 mph, how much effort are you putting toward actually driving? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 80 percent of car crashes are caused by distracted drivers [source: New York Times]. Automakers' challenge is to figure out how to design features in digital cars that allow drivers to use these specialized features with minimal distraction.

Microsoft has proposed the Sync, a multimedia hub designed for cars. The Sync uses wireless technology for drivers to connect to two of the biggest distractions -- mobile mp3 devices and cell phones -- with simple voice commands [source: Ford]. And Ford offers a pickup truck that comes equipped with an in-dash monitor, full-size keyboard and Internet access. But there's a safety precaution: The computer only works when the truck's transmission is in park [source: New York Times].

For more information on autos and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Burgess, Scott. "'08 Cadillac CTS sets standard for affordable luxury, performance." Detroit News. August 29, 2007. http://info.detnews.com/autosconsumer/autoreviews/index.cfm?id=26713
  • Gantz, Toni and Henkle, Gretchen. "Seatbelts: Current issues." Prevention Institute. October 2002. http://www.preventioninstitute.org/traffic_seatbelt.html
  • Incantalupo, Tom. "Insurance institute praises new accident warning technologies." Seattle Times. April 25, 2008.http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/motoring/2004371530_newsafety25.html
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  • Moran, Tim. "Curb your car, please: Parking is easy when the valet is a computer." New York Times. November 5, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/05/automobiles/05PARK.html
  • Thomas, Owen. "Baby, you can drive my iPod." CNN Money. January 12, 2006. http://money.cnn.com/2006/01/12/technology/ipod_auto/index.htm
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