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By Jim Kerr

Every fall, members of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) gather together to test all the new vehicles, then vote for class winners, such as best family car or best SUV in selected price ranges. From those class winners, the Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year are selected.

While those evaluations and winners garner a lot of attention, the automotive technologies that are introduced into new automobiles every year and that we may use on a daily basis are also being evaluated. It starts back in July, where the manufacturers present a short summary of technologies to the AJAC Technology panel. These AJAC members have backgrounds in auto repair, education, engineering and other technology related fields – in short, they are “gearheads” and with their expertise, they whittle the entries down to a short list of finalists in two categories: Best New Automotive Technology and Green Automotive Technology.

Each of the final entries is presented to the jury in an in-depth presentation by the manufacturers and a winner for the best technology in each category is selected. For those interested in technology, it provides interesting reading material. For drivers, it showcases the technologies that make our vehicles safer, more economical, greener or more comfortable to drive, which is a big factor in deciding on what vehicle to purchase.

This year, there were 11 finalists. In the Best New Technology category there were six entries: Audi’s Drive-Select system, the Mercedes-Benz Attention Assist system, Lexus Remote Touch, Toyota’s Touch Tracer, Volvo’s City Safety system and Ford’s MyKey.

In the Green Technology category, there were five finalists: Toyota/Lexus Plant-based Ecological Plastics, Ford’s Next Generation Hybrid system and SmartGauge, Toyota’s Atkinson-Cycle engine with cooled exhaust, the Mercedes-Benz S400 car with lithium-ion batteries and the Toyota Solar Panel Moonroof and remote Air Conditioning. The AJAC panel has already cast their votes. Now you too can select the winners and see if you agree with the specialists. Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at each of the technologies, so watch for the winners to be announced for the Green Technology category at the Montreal Auto Show in January and the Best New Technology at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto in February.

To help you make your choices, let’s take a look at one of the entries now – the Mercedes-Benz Attention Assist system, designed to alert drivers if they become overtired. According to Mercedes-Benz, research has shown that up to 25 per cent of serious highway accidents are caused by overtired drivers. The Attention Assist system monitors driving patterns and habits to determine if a driver is becoming overtired, and will warn them if they are.

To perform this task, the vehicle computer monitors up to 72 different parameters. These include vehicle speed, accelerations and decelerations, time of day, how long the driver has been behind the wheel, road conditions and most importantly, steering wheel inputs and behaviour. For the first 20 minutes of driving, the computer monitors all the inputs to learn how you drive. After that, it can warn you with both audible and visual warnings if it determines you are fatigued.

The Attention Assist system can be either turned on or off, although I can’t imagine why you would want to turn it off. When activated, a steaming coffee cup is shown on the multi-function display – very appropriate. After four hours of driving time, the system chimes and the red visual warning appears indicating break time. Press the OK button and the system will warn you again in another 15 minutes. If the system sees the driver’s seat belt unbuckled and the driver’s door opened, it assumes there has been a driver change and will reset for another four hours. Warnings can be given before the four hour limit.

Drowsy drivers tend to make slow corrections, followed by sudden changes as they intermittently become more and less alert. Seeing these patterns, the system can warn the driver regardless of how long they have been on the road (after the first 20 minutes). It can also delay the warning if it sees sporty driving, sharp accelerations, precise lane changes or high cornering speeds, as these are conditions where a driver has to be alert to perform them.

The concept is simple. The warnings are simple, but the technology used to make Attention Assist a reality is amazing.

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