2014 Autos: Safety and Security

Autonomous driving — where the car, not the driver, is in control — may still be a few years away. But many cars already have options to make your trip much safer.

November 27, 2013

It’s long been the stuff of science fiction, but by the end of the decade, you’ll be able to order an autonomous vehicle at your local showroom, promises Nissan Executive Vice President Andy Palmer. Simply tap a button or two, sit back, and relax as your car drives itself to your destination. And the Japanese automaker isn’t alone. Virtually every manufacturer on the market is working up similar technology.

But why wait? Using a mix of cameras, laser, radar, and sonar sensors, a number of vehicles already are equipped with high-tech systems “paving the way towards autonomous driving,” notes Dieter Zetsche, head of the Mercedes-Benz brand and CEO of its parent, Daimler AG.

Just check out the completely redesigned 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class to see what he means. Among other things, the big sedan will automatically come to a screeching halt if, for example, a child dashes into the street. It can slow or accelerate to keep pace with traffic. It can take steps to prevent, or at least minimize, the impact in the event another vehicle runs a stop sign. It will even use infrared sensors to spot a deer ready to cross the highway, flashing a warning on the car’s reconfigurable instrument panel display.

As you might expect, such technology doesn’t come cheap: A well-equipped S-Class pushes into the six-figure territory. The good news is that today’s latest safety gear isn’t limited to only the wealthiest of buyers. It wasn’t all that long ago when even Mercedes-Benz introduced the new Cross Traffic Alert system on its big 7-Series. The device uses radar to keep an eye out for oncoming vehicles as you back out of a spot in, say, a mall parking lot. Today, it’s becoming increasingly commonplace on even compact sedans, coupes, and crossovers.

Antilock brakes and stability control are now mandated by the federal government — and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will soon require backup cameras, as well. Not that it needs to put that into law; those devices are now offered, either as standard equipment or as options, on the majority of 2014 models.

Other safety systems you’re likely to see with increasing frequency include: blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and forward-collision avoidance. The latter system can spot a potential obstacle ahead and, on some models, bring the car to a fast stop if the driver doesn’t react quickly enough.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.