While the latest news surrounding the U.S. auto industry continues to be focused on slumping sales and production cutbacks, automakers continue to turn out cars that highlight the latest technologies in the areas of safety, engine efficiency and performance, and alternative fuels. The U.S. “Big Three” — Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler — along with Toyota, Honda, and other Japanese automakers, are introducing more models with hybrid or alternative-fuel engines, and safety features that enable parents to track their teenage drivers and cars to talk to each other.

Hybrid and Alternative-Fuel Engines

E85 is a fuel blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline — a completely renewable fuel made in the U.S. primarily from corn. The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Center for Transportation Research estimates that on a per-gallon basis, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 18 to 29%.

“If all of the nearly six million flexiblefuel vehicles now on America’s highways operated on E85, more than 3.6 billion gallons of gasoline could be displaced a year,” said Sue Cischke, vice president of environmental and safety engineering for Ford. “That would be equivalent to saving a full year of gasoline consumption in a state like Tennessee or Missouri.” Ford has committed to making half of its entire vehicle fleet flexible-fuel-capable by 2012, and recently delivered 20 Escape Hybrid E85 SUVs as research vehicles for use in six different states.

According to Ford, the Escape Hybrid E85 is the world’s first hybrid vehicle capable of operating on blends of fuels containing as much as 85% ethanol. General Motors currently has more than two million of its FlexFuel vehicles on the road that run on E85 ethanol.

The Ford Escape Hybrid E85 is the world’s first hybrid capable of operating on ethanol-based fuel produced from corn. (Ford Motor Co.)

Last year, Saab introduced the Bio- Power Hybrid Concept that delivers zero fossil CO2 emissions by combining pure bioethanol fuel and electric power generation. The hybrid engine features a 300- volt battery bank, a 38-kW rear-mounted electric motor, a 15-kW integrated starter generator, and all-wheel drive with electric power transmission to the rear wheels. The all-aluminum 2.0-liter Bio- Power engine runs on pure E100 bioethanol fuel, operating in tandem with the electrical power system. For city driving, an electric-only “Zero Mode” shuts off the engine and switches to complete electric power at speeds below 31 miles per hour. Electric and gas hybrid engines also are advancing at a rapid pace, with more and more new hybrid vehicles being offered each model year. Last year, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and BMW Group formed a cooperative effort called the Global Hybrid Cooperation, which is developing the next-generation hybrid powertrain system that integrates electric motors with a fixed-gear transmission. The system uses low- and high-speed electric continuously variable transmission (ECVT) modes and four fixed gear ratios so that the system can use the electric motors for boosting and regenerative braking.

Engineers and specialists from all three automakers staff a development center in Troy, MI devoted to bringing together the hybrid system and its components. The center is designing the electric motors, electronics, wiring, energy management system, and the hybrid system control units, and will integrate the system. The three companies will incorporate the hybrid system into the design and manufacture of their own vehicles. GM announced late last year that they are incorporating the 2-mode hybrid system in their 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line SUV.

Ford’s new Duratec 35 V6 flexible engine is a 3.5-liter 265 horsepower engine being introduced in the Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX and MKZ, Ford Five Hundred, and the Mazda CX-9. Ford projects the engine will power as many as 20% of its vehicles by the end of the decade.

The engine features low exhaust emissions, and is flexible enough to incorporate many technologies including frontor rear-wheel drive, hybrid capability, gasoline direct injection, and turbo-injection. It is also capable of passing the Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEV) standards, put in place by the state of California, and considered the strictest in the country.

DaimlerChrysler’s Car-2-X Communication system radios details of critical situations detected by a car’s onboard sensors to following cars. (DaimlerChrysler)

Finally, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen, and Jeep® have launched the BLUETEC Diesel Initiative, under which each of the manufacturers will work on their own technical systems for meeting emission regulations for cars and SUVs with diesel engines. The BLUETEC brand name covers systems designed to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) in diesel engines. These systems include an oxidizing catalytic converter and a particulate filter combined with a NOx storage converter. Another system involves AdBlue, a water-based additive that is injected into the exhaust gas. This causes ammonia to be released, which in turn reduces the nitrogen oxides almost completely to harmless nitrogen and water in a downstream catalytic converter.

Accident Avoidance

Carmakers today are focusing more than ever on safety features that help drivers before, during, and after an accident. While accident prevention is the ultimate goal, crashes happen, and auto companies are using advanced technologies that help make more accidents minor, rather than major.

The first step in providing the best safety features is crash testing, and today, automakers are using advanced crash-test dummies and data acquisition techniques to determine how their cars — and the passengers — will fare in an accident. GM has begun using new anthropomorphic test dummies that feature internal data recorders capable of collecting 10,000 samples of crash data per second for each of the 24 data channels. Since the dummies are not encumbered by many pounds of wires, they move more freely in a crash, similar to the way a person would move. Avoiding a crash is the next step, and one that involves warning systems, night vision, and stability control. DaimlerChrysler has tested vehicles equipped with the Car-2-X Communication system that radios details of critical situations detected by a car’s onboard sensors to following cars. Conditions such as fog, black ice, or obstacles in the road such as brokendown cars and fallen trees can be sent from one car to another using the system. Using wireless LAN technology, the system enables cars to act as both transmitters and receivers. The cars establish an ad-hoc radio network to send warnings to other vehicles within a radius of about 1,600 feet. For vehicles outside that range, the cars act as relays to pass on warnings.

The system requires no additional sensors because the necessary information is provided by the anti-lock braking system, the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®), steering-angle sensors, the outside thermometer, and the navigation system. In addition to warning motorists of conditions in advance, the system also could be used to improve traffic flow — cars could guide their occupants away from traffic congestion.

The GM, DaimlerChrysler, and BMW Two-Mode Hybrid Transmission (t-variant), being developed under the Global Hybrid Cooperation effort. (DaimlerChrysler)

Volvo Cars, a division of Ford, also has released a new system to help prevent accidents. City Safety is designed to help a driver avoid low-speed collisions that are common in urban traffic. If the car in front suddenly brakes and City Safety senses that a collision is likely, it precharges the brakes to help the driver avoid a collision by braking, or lets the driver steer away from the accident. When the system senses that a collision is imminent, the car brakes automatically using hydraulic pump activation. Using an optical radar system integrated into the upper part of the windshield at the height of the rear-view mirror, City Safety monitors vehicles up to about 20 feet in front of the car. Based on the distance to the object in front and the car’s own speed, the system runs a calculation 50 times per second to determine what braking speed is needed to avoid a crash. If the braking force exceeds a given level without the driver responding, City Safety automatically activates the car’s brakes and switches off the throttle.

When an Accident Happens

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a new proposal last September that would require automakers to install electronic stability control (ESC) as a standard feature on all new passenger vehicles, beginning with the 2009 model year. The move could save more than 10,000 lives each year. ESC systems use automatic computer- controlled braking of individual wheels to help drivers maintain control in situations in which a vehicle without ESC would skid out of control and leave the road. Nearly all rollover crashes occur after a vehicle has left the road, according to the NHTSA. The anti-rollover measure would cost about $111 per vehicle on cars already equipped with ABS brakes.

When an accident does occur, safety belts, airbags, and side air curtains all help prevent fatalities. The NHTSA estimates that in 2006, U.S. vehicle fatalities reached their lowest levels since 1994, and safety belt usage reached 82%. Ford has begun developing next-generation safety belts that incorporate a four-point belt and “suspenders” in lieu of the traditional three-point belt, as well as an inflatable belt that incorporates an airbag directly into the belt.

The inflatable rear safety belt fills with air during a crash. A strap of airbag material is hidden in the seatbelt webbing, and inflates into a cylindrical shape when the front airbags deploy. The belt spreads the forces of a crash over a broader section of the body, reducing pressure on the chest and controlling the motion of the head and neck.

Another system is in the process of being incorporated by select European and North American automakers as an airbag suppression mechanism. The Head Tracking System (HTS) from Intelligent Mechatronic Systems (IMS) of Ontario, Canada, uses capacitive sensing technology, software algorithms, and signal processing to track an occupant’s head position in a vehicle in three dimensions in real time for dynamic airbag suppression. The HTS uses a transmitting electrode in the vehicle seat, an array of receiving electrodes mounted in a vehicle headliner above the seat, and embedded software that processes the capacitance data to track the occupant’s head position in real time.

The Future: Peace of Mind

Would you sleep better at night knowing exactly where your teen driver is, and how safely they’re driving? Now you can. IMS offers DriveSync™, a GPS-based unit that, when installed in the car, monitors and records the driver’s behavior: when, where, how far, how fast, and how aggressively a vehicle is being operated. The DriveSync key is removed from the main unit and plugged into a computer’s USB port, and the vehicle’s usage data is uploaded to a server, which processes the data and creates reports, route maps, and usage alerts. The results can be viewed from a password-protected Web site.

You also may sleep better knowing that Toyota and Nissan are both working on technologies that would detect if a driver were legally drunk. Toyota’s system uses sweat sensors in the steering wheel to detect high levels of alcohol in the driver’s bloodstream. The system uses a special camera to detect if the driver’s pupils are out of focus. In either case, the system would automatically shut down the vehicle, bringing a moving car slowly to a halt. Toyota’s technology is expected to be available in 2009. Nissan also is experimenting with breath alcohol devices to detect impaired motorists.