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The Car That Stops Itself and Other Hi-Tech Rides

I blame The Jetsons. The way I see it, ever since the classic 1960s cartoon, we've been pining for family transportation that will drive itself. We haven't gotten there yet, but automakers have come pretty darn close in the name of car safety. Although the first line of defense is always a safe driver, the newest safety systems work independently of the driver to keep you and your passengers safe. The leading safety features can keep you awake, slow you down, speed you up, help you see in the dark and even prevent a collision altogether.

Collision Warning and Auto Brake

The Volvo XC60's Collision Warning with Auto Brake works in tandem with the vehicle's adaptive cruise control to audibly alert a driver if a frontal collision is possible. This system will also pre-charge the XC60's brakes so you can make surer stops. Similarly, the XC60's City Safety technology uses an infrared laser sensor to determine if you're approaching a vehicle too fast, and then applies the brakes if you fail to react in time to stop.

Adaptive Cruise Control

While adaptive cruise control can't stop your car, it can slow you down to help you prevent a collision. These systems do more than maintain a pre-selected speed on the open road -- they can prevent a collision in stop-and-go traffic. Using radar technology, adaptive cruise control senses your proximity to the car in front of you and automatically adjusts your speed to keep a pre-selected distance. Mercedes Benz's Distronic Plus Adaptive Cruise Control is a reviewer favorite for its ability to maintain a selected following distance even in stop-and-go traffic. The system applies up to 40 percent brake power in an emergency situation to give you time to avoid an accident.

Parking Assistance

Cars in all price segments now offer rearview cameras to help drivers see what's behind them, but some of the newest cars take a more active approach. General Motors' ultrasonic rear parking assist detects objects behind cars like the Buick Enclave and LaCrosse, Cadillac Escalade Hybrid or GMC Yukon using sound waves. The system alerts drivers with audible alarms that intensify in frequency and pitch the closer you come to hitting something. Lexus even provides an optional Advanced Parking Guidance System for the Lexus LS and LS Hybrid that uses those sensors to parallel park your car for you.

Lane Departure Warnings

Several carmakers now have safety systems that alert you if you appear to be distracted while driving. A frontrunner in car safety systems, Volvo offers a Lane Departure and Driver Alert Control system to keep you on a straight path and/or warn you if you seem to be distracted from the road.

Available with the Volvo S80, V70, XC60 and XC70, the system uses a camera that monitors your car's position in relation to road markings. If your car is weaving, the system uses visual and audible alerts to help you regain focus. According to industry rumors, the upcoming 2010 Mercedes Benz E-Class will feature a physical alert system to help you perk up -- a vibrating steering wheel  Other manufacturers offering lane departure warning systems include Audi, BMW and General Motors.

Night Vision

Luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz are introducing safety systems that enhance your ability to see the road ahead when driving at night. The BMW 5-Series' optional Night Vision technology provides an infrared image of obstructions from afar. But while BMW's radars can only detect warm objects (like animals or people), Mercedes-Benz's Night View Assist tracks warm and cold objects, helping frivers avoid collisions with both deer and parked cars.


Pre-Crash Systems

Pre-crash car safety systems use sensors to determine when a collision is inevitable, and then automatically prep the car's engineering to protect the passengers. Standouts include Mercedes Benz's PRE-SAFE system or the Advanced Pre-Collision System on the 2010 Toyota Prius and various Lexus models. If an accident seems unavoidable, the system automatically tightens seat belts, adjusts headrests and moves the passenger seats to ready the vehicle and its occupants for an impact. The PRE-SAFE system even closes open windows and sunroofs if it anticipates a vehicle rollover.