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Car Safety 101: Anti-Lock Brakes

Skids can be difficult to recover from.

Anti-lock brakes might save your life, but they won't always help you stop faster. Do you know when and where you won't be able to count on your ABS?

Car Tech Spotlight10

April is Distracted Driving Month

Tuesday April 1, 2014
distracted driving month

April is distracted driving month, which makes this a great time to discuss the inherent dangers that come part and parcel with a lot of the technologies that are covered on this site. Although there are a lot of car safety technologies and ADAS that are designed to make you safer on the road, basically anything that draws your attention away from the road can potentially put you in danger. And that includes everything from poorly-designed infotainment system user interfaces to cell phones -- even if you're responsible and pair a handsfree device.

During 2013's distracted driving month, the NHTSA produced an infographic that outlined the dangers of all types of distracted driving, and some of their numbers were surprising. This year, the agency is focusing specifically on the dangers of using a cell phone in your car when you're on the clock at work, and the numbers are no less surprising. For instance, car crashes represent the leading cause of all workplace deaths in the United States, and you're four times more likely to get into a car crash if you're using a cell phone.

Even more worrisome is the fact that these numbers include those of us who are responsible enough to pair our phones to a Bluetooth car stereo or Bluetooth car kit. In one instance, a company had to pay out over $21 million in damages after their employee caused a car crash while using a handsfree device, which was required by company policy.

Although it's undeniable that using a handsfree device is the safest way to use a cell phone in a car, but the NHTSA hopes to use the looming sword of Damocles that these big lawsuits represent to convince businesses to change their cell phone policies. In order to drive their point home, the agency also reports that only one percent of companies experienced productivity decreases after instituting policies aimed at reducing distracted driving.

Whether you're going to put your cell phone down this month, or just play it safe with a handsfree device, there are a lot of other technologies that can prevent accidents from distracted driving:

Curb Your Road Rage

Sunday March 16, 2014
road rage

Or your car might do it for you.

Government agencies and private security firms have been using complicated facial recognition software for years. This sort of technology started out as a way to use computers to do the heavy lifting of sorting through visual data and searching for specific people, but it has actually gotten to the point where the right hardware and software can actually determine a person's emotional state from his or her facial expressions.

And this technology might be in your next car. In fact, many of the building blocks, like collision avoidance systems, are already in place.

The purported goal? To curb incidences of road rage.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology teamed up with PSA Peugeot Citroen to perform a study that they say turned up promising results. The study involved placing an infrared camera on the dash behind the steering wheel and connecting it to facial recognition software. The software was specifically designed to recognize anger and disgust, which are both associated with road rage. The basic conceit behind the study is that irritation can cause drivers to become less attentive, and road rage often leads to catastrophic accidents, so in-car emotion detection systems could have real world safety implications.

The natural progression of this idea is that some future "emotion detection system" might have the ability to automatically take action if it determines that a driver is displaying negative emotions. For instance, this type of system might kick in and provide emergency braking or lane departure warnings if the driver appears irritated -- and thus less attentive. Or it might even take more drastic measures if the driver appears enraged.

The idea of a production model ever having the ability to decide that you're too mad to drive on your own might seem like science fiction, but all of the basic building blocks are actually in place. If you go out and buy a brand new car today, in fact, there's a very real chance that it could have everything that's needed to execute this type of system except for the software.

For instance, the EPFL study makes use of the same sort of detection methods that are already in place for some driver alert systems. Some of these systems actually use dash-mounted infrared cameras to look for signs of driver drowsiness in the form of drooping eyelids. Although facial recognition software that's capable of discerning emotions is a lot more complicated, the same basic principles are at work: if the driver alert system notices your eyelids drooping, it can sound an alarm that may only turn off if you pull over and get out of your car.

If the infrared cameras that are already used in driver alert systems were to be implemented in emotion-detection systems, they could tie into a whole grab bag of advanced driver assistance systems and safety technologies. Irritation might trigger a lane-keeping or lane departure warning system, and signs of impending road rage might use automatic braking systems to precharge the brakes or even activate them, which would bring you to a screeching halt whether you want it or not.

Is this the sort of safety tech that you want in your next car? How about in the car of that guy who tailgated or brake checked you last week? Or, taking this whole concept a little further, what if this same software was able to recognize when a driver is talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device like a Bluetooth stereo or earpiece? We already have laws against using cellphones popping up all over the place -- why not deputize our cars, too?

Image courtesy of Josh Greenfield, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Dealing With Dead Batteries

Tuesday February 25, 2014

Winter should be winding down by now in the Northern Hemisphere, but that's very cold comfort indeed when you're sitting in the middle of a snow storm with a dead battery and a car that just won't start. Last month, when we covered the potential fallout from a dead battery, we promised to provide a rundown on how to deal with a dead car battery, and there are really two main solutions (aside from calling roadside assistance), both of which require a little forethought.

If you're really into the whole preparedness thing, then you probably have your battery checked (or check it yourself) on a regular basis. For the rest of us, it's nice to have a little insurance policy in the form of a jump box, a charger, or both. Jump boxes are essentially just sealed car batteries with built-in jumper cables, but they can be real life savers, and not just in the colder winter months. Whether your battery has died from "natural causes" in the middle of a snow storm, or you just forgot to turn your headlights off after a particularly hectic day of work, a fully charged will save you the trouble of trying to find someone who is willing to provide a jump start.

Since jump boxes are essentially just neatly-packaged car batteries, they can also function as portable power packs for anything that runs off 12V. Most of them come with a built-in 12v accessory socket, and some even have built-in inverters. Although you probably won't be running your fridge off one of these jump box power packs, they do provide a better, safer option than relying on a car inverter during a power outage.

Of course, it's important to remember that a jump box is just a band-aid fix. It can be incredibly hard on your alternator to drive around with a completely dead battery, which is why a battery charger is the better, safer choice in some situations. For instance, if your battery goes dead at home, and you can afford to wait while it charges up, you'll be doing yourself a favor in the long run. You may even want to invest in a charger that has a "boost" or "jump start" setting, which will allow you to use it for a jump start in a pinch. There are a few factors to consider when choosing a jump starter, but owning both a portable unit and a plug-in unit will cover all of the bases.

Regardless of how you choose to deal with a dead battery, it's always important to follow the correct procedures. If your owner's manual includes specific instructions, then it's always a good idea to start there. If not, then there are some general tips that can help you use a jump starter safely.

Cold Kills Batteries

Sunday January 26, 2014

Both extreme hot and cold are tough on batteries, but car batteries tend to start dropping like flies right along with the mercury each winter. The fact that every battery lists its "cold cranking amperage" in addition to a different, higher, cranking amperage, is no mistake. Freezing temperatures slow the chemical reactions inside lead acid batteries to a crawl, which is why it's so common to trudge through the snow to your car on a cold winter morning, stick the key in the ignition, and hear that familiar labored grunt, click, or nothing at all.

A dead battery can be enough of a headache on its own, and we'll be covering a few ways to deal with them next month, but the potential inconveniences that a dead battery can cause often spread far beyond the fact that your car won't start. Every electronic device in your car that has a "keep alive" memory function gets reset right along with your battery, which is why OBD-II vehicles will fail emissions if the battery has died (or been disconnected) recently. In order to save yourself a repeat trip, you can use an ELM327 scanner that hooks up to your phone (or a more conventional OBD-II scanner or code reader) to verify that all of your readiness monitors have ran since the battery died.

Of course, most head units also rely on the battery for a "keep alive" function, which means you lose all of your presets when the battery dies. And as if that wasn't annoying enough, some car radios come with a built-in security "feature" that locks them up tight whenever they lose battery power. Of course, that means your simple dead battery problem might lock you out of your stereo until you put in the right car radio code.

If that happens, and you don't already have the code written down somewhere, there are a handful of different ways to find a car radio code. Your local dealer might be able to help you, it's sometimes possible to obtain the right code from the manufacturer of the head unit, and there are also paid services out there that will provide you with the right code for a fee.

In case all of that fails, you might find yourself in need of a replacement head unit. Of course, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most head units that come with a security code "feature" are OEM, which means that replacing your bricked radio is almost certainly going to result in an upgrade. There are a ton of different head unit options available, and you might want to start with our head unit buyer's guide, or even our newbie's guide to car audio if you're new to all of this car audio stuff.

If you're not sure what size your head unit is, you may find out rundowns on 1 DIN, 1.5 DIN, and 2 DIN helpful.

In other cases, where your head unit is built into climate controls or doesn't conform to the normal 1/1.5/2 DIN dimensions, you may need some type of an adapter kit to make everything work. Of course, you can always ditch the head unit altogether and just use your iPod without a head unit, although you'll probably have to buy a new amplifier (and possibly other hardware) to make it work.

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