Consumers who haven't shopped for a new car for a few years may encounter some exotic new safety advances.
There's a technology revolution in the auto business, and it involves more than streaming radio apps and voice-activated Facebook (FB) updates.
Consumers who haven't shopped for a new car for five or more years -- and that's a lot of people, since the average U.S. vehicle has been on the road for just over a decade -- may encounter some exotic new advances.
To attract safety-conscious drivers, some carmakers are revisiting the question, "Is there anywhere else we can stash an air bag?" Night-vision systems similar to those the military uses to spot enemies in the dark are appearing at the upper reaches of the luxury market. And to meet tougher fuel-economy standards, carmakers are installing transmissions with up to nine speeds.
At this point, only a few customers might order such novel features. But what starts out as a costly, brand-burnishing option in a luxury sedan often migrates into wider use, as technology prices invariably drop. Here's a sample of new technology hitting showrooms this year.
Click an inflatable seat belt
Automakers and safety-technology suppliers such as Sweden's Autoliv (ALV) have developed shoulder straps with air bags built in. In the U.S., Ford Motor (F) was the first to offer this bag-in-belt technology on 2011 Explorers. Now, Mercedes-Benz will offer it on its new S-Class sedans.
Although traditional lap and shoulder belts prevent thousands of deaths a year, they can also cause what researchers call "seat-belt syndrome."
The belts can lead to severe injuries to organs, muscles and spines, especially in violent crashes. Inflatable seat belts are meant to reduce this risk. Traditional air-bag systems mounted in the car's steering wheel and elsewhere use a hot gas to inflate the bag rapidly during a crash. To prevent burns, bag-in-belt systems use a cold gas to inflate its protective bladder.
Ford says it currently offers bag-in-belt systems on four models -- the Explorer, the Flex wagon, the Lincoln MKT sport utility and the Lincoln MKZ sedan. About 25% of people who buy those vehicles order the bag-in-belt option, Ford says. Mercedes says it will likely move the technology into other models, but the company isn't outlining specific plans.
Spot pedestrians in the dark
Safety regulators around the world are increasingly focused on motor-vehicle accidents involving pedestrians, and that's spurring development of new systems to help drivers see people on foot before it's too late.
More than 4,000 pedestrians a year die in the U.S. after being hit by a car. Nearly 70,000 were injured in motor-vehicle accidents in 2011, according to government data. Many of these incidents happen at night.
This year, German luxury brand BMW is launching a "dynamic-spotlight" technology that uses an infrared camera mounted behind the grille to see down the road ahead. Software can pick out the outline of a person (or animal) and signal the car's headlights to illuminate them -- and help prevent a collision.
The system also shows an in-cabin alert, projecting an icon representing a person enclosed in a yellow triangle onto either a dashboard screen or the windshield.
Design your own dashboard
Dashboards used to be static displays with mechanical dials and gauges. Now, automakers are ditching the dials in favor of programmable screens that can display more information and allow drivers to personalize the look of the cockpit displays.
The new Lexus IS F-Sport model, due out this June, uses a thin-film transistor display and a moving tachometer dial (which measures RPMs) to create a hybrid of the traditional and the new. The technology is adapted from Lexus's super sports car, the LFA.
By toggling a control on the steering wheel, the driver can get the big dial in the center of the dashboard to move to the right, revealing a flat-screen display that can be customized for two different drivers.
"We can change languages, miles per hour to kilometers" and show information such as route guidance, says Bill Camp of Lexus's training operation, Lexus University.
Shift into ninth gear
Ever-tougher federal demands for fuel efficiency have led carmakers to add more gears to transmissions. And more. And more.
You don't have to be very old to remember when most cars came with four-speed transmissions. Now, Chrysler says it will introduce a nine-speed gearbox designed to fit into a relatively small, front-wheel-drive car.
ZF Friedrichshafen, the German company that makes the nine-speed transmission, says it can improve fuel economy by 10% to 16% compared with a six-speed automatic, mainly because it offers a wider spread of gears to keep the engine in the "sweet spot," where it's turning as slowly as possible to stay at a certain speed.
Such a transmission's challenge lies largely in the software that controls the vehicle's shifting. Too much and drivers could feel as if the car is constantly changing gear and not running smoothly. Too little and the fuel-economy benefits don't materialize.
Michael Ebenhoch, the director of ZF's front-drive transmission development, says that with nine speeds, "we are getting closer to the maximum" for a passenger car. On the other hand, he says, "the guy who developed the five-speed said we don't need six."
Drive by computer
Traditionally, steering a car has involved a series of mechanical connections that allow the wheel in your hands to guide the four wheels on the road. Infiniti's new Q50 sedan -- which replaces the current G series in the Nissan Motor luxury brand's lineup -- boasts the industry's first so-called steer-by-wire system, which swaps out those mechanical elements with an all-electronic system.
Proponents say an electronic signal can be faster than a mechanical linkage at translating what the driver does with the steering wheel to the road. The electronic system also allows drivers to choose among four different degrees of serenity or sportiness in the handling. If the electronics fail, Infiniti says a backup mechanical-linkage system will keep the car under control.
The steer-by-wire system is part of an array of technology on board the Q50, including advanced cruise control and radar-enabled braking, that allows the driver to take control when the road is fun and twisty, but also enables the car to handle a lot of driving work itself during a routine commute.
More from The Wall Street Journal
Wearable computers could be the next big thing, and few companies could do more than Apple -- and its army of developers -- to make a smartwatch a must-have accessory.
Wearable computers, such as a wristwatch that makes phone calls, have for many years been the stuff of comic books, science-fiction novels and spy movies.
But recent reports that Apple (AAPL) is developing a so-called "smartwatch" mean that the company could turn wearable computers into computing's next frontier and singlehandedly revive watch-wearing among younger generations.
"We see the body as the next frontier for personal computing," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It would be strange for Apple to be absent from that, they absolutely have something to contribute to that."
Before Steve Jobs passed away, he acknowledged that he would have liked Apple to take on Detroit with its own vehicle.
Apple (AAPL) sells hundreds of millions of iDevices. If Steve Jobs were still around, those products could include an iCar.
In a New York Times article this weekend, discussing Apple's possible development of a wristwatch-like gadget, writer Nick Bilton discussed the tech pioneer's penchant for pushing boundaries, even if it meant taking on the automobile industry.
Before his death in October 2011, Jobs confided to Times tech reporter John Markoff that he would have liked Apple to do something with automobiles.
Sony's unprecedented ability to innovate in the realm of consumer electronics hit a wall as the company failed to move on, to reinvent and to think differently.
Before there was the Cult of Steve, there was the Cult of Morita-san.
It's impossible for young people today to understand just how revolutionary the Walkman was in its time. It let us take our music -- not the radio station's programming but whole albums -- with us wherever we went. And it ran on regular AA batteries.
If the iPod is a telephone, the Walkman was a telegraph, the first revolution, not a refinement.
Riding the avalanche of new smartphones and tablets released for the holiday season, Qualcomm reported better-than-expected sales and earnings for its fiscal first quarter.
Without question, the pursuit of supremacy in the mobile-device space is the hottest battle in the market. As Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) battle to drive each other out of business, there are chip companies, including Qualcomm (QCOM) and Intel (INTC), looking to dominate form factors with each new mobile device.
With each passing quarter, it's evident that Qualcomm is winning its battles with Intel, by an ever-greater margin.
This trend bodes well for Qualcomm, which looks to be the surest bet in the volatile but growing mobile-device market.
And if fiscal-first-quarter earnings are any indication, this chip giant is not done rewarding investors.
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[BRIEFING.COM] The stock market punctuated July with a broad-based retreat that sent the S&P 500 lower by 2.0% with all ten sectors ending in the red. The benchmark index posted a monthly decline of 1.5%, while the Russell 2000 (-2.3%) underperformed to end the month lower by 6.1%.
To get a better feel for what led to today's retreat, we'd like to look back to Wednesday, when the market had ample reason to rally, but did not. Instead, it ended basically flat after a sloppy day of ... More
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