by Jim Kerr

Automobile manufacturers are continually introducing new models with more features, more powerful engines, computer networks to rival a small office and more gears in transmissions. Just the other day Mercedes announced they are introducing a 7-speed automatic transmission for some of their cars. So what does all this complex automotive technology really do for owners, drivers and passengers of these high tech vehicles?

When computerized fuel injection was first installed on cars, owners feared that the technology would leave them stranded on the side of the road. True, there are a few faults that can stop a vehicle, but engine computers compensate for most faults and let the vehicle “limp” home. Some will even allow the engine to run without coolant by turning off cylinders in sequence to prevent overheating!

Today, many drivers have forgotten about carburetors that needed adjustment every spring and fall or sparkplugs that needed changing every 16000 km. Technology has eliminated much of this frequent maintenance and improved engine performance so that many vehicles can operate for years without engine adjustments. Improved driveability both hot and cold, better fuel economy and lower exhaust emissions are other benefits of engine computer technology we often overlook.

Automatic transmissions are also computer controlled. During a shift, the computer reduces engine power for a split second so that the clutches can apply without excessive slippage. Technology helps provide a smoother shift, longer transmission life and can even adapt transmission shifting patterns to match your driving style. Remember that 7-speed Mercedes transmission? It sounds complex but cuts nearly a third of a second in time when accelerating from 0 to 100 kph and improves fuel economy up to .6 litres per 100 km compared to a five speed automatic. That’s technology at work!

Safety has been improved dramatically with new technology. Electronic sensors deploy air bags during life threatening accidents. ABS and stability control systems help drivers keep the vehicle under control when roads are slippery or during sudden accident avoidance manoeuvres.

Many new vehicles use “brake assist” technology that senses the rate the brake pedal is pressed and automatically apply brakes fully if necessary. Drivers may step on the brake pedal quickly but take time to react fully to dangerous situations. The computer can already be providing maximum braking force, stopping the vehicle that few feet shorter necessary to avoid an accident.

Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar are offering adaptive cruise control systems that will slow the car if another vehicle is too close or warn drivers of danger. While these improvements are often advertised by the manufacturers, technology has improved vehicles in unseen ways too.

Computer Assisted Design (CAD) allows manufacturers to crash test virtual cars and trucks to determine where changes in design or materials will improve vehicle crash safety. Now during an accident, vehicles are designed to crumple in specific zones so that the passenger compartment stays intact but the rest of the vehicle’s body absorbs the energy. Passengers are protected by the gradual deceleration of the vehicle. Without the use of computer technology, years of study on real accidents would have to occur before some design changes could be incorporated.

High intensity discharge headlamps provide up to 60% more light. Voice activated controls allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road. Night vision warns drivers of pedestrians and animals beyond the range of the headlamps. Ultrasonic park assist warns drivers of objects close to the vehicle. All these high tech features enable drivers to “see” outside the vehicle better for enhanced safety. Without advances in technology, none of these features would be possible.

Around the shop, I often hear people talking about the good old days when cars were simple and easy to work on. In reality, few remember how much work was involved in maintaining those vehicles. Technology has presented challenges when repairing vehicles, but it has also built better tools to diagnose problems too. For us, it has made driving a lot more enjoyable, safer and worry free.

Technology has improved automobiles immensely over the years, but some things never change. Engines still need oil, filters get dirty and tires need air. Have routine maintenance items checked often to protect your high tech automobile.

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