Cars' smarts go through the roof

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Q I was wondering just how smart new cars are, computer-wise. Are they as smart as my smartphone or laptop?

— Gene Lathrop

AModern cars and trucks are super-smart. They adapt to driver styles, environmental conditions and degraded component operation to provide the smoothest acceleration, idle and shifts. Your power-train control module, or PCM, scrutinizes each transmission shift, looking at the rate of rpm change on input and output shafts. If it's not perfect, hydraulic pressure is adjusted for the next clutch application.

The PCM looks at a huge number of engine inputs to infer exhaust emission compliance. Should anything come to light that could mean emission levels will be exceeded, the dreaded “check engine” light is illuminated and a code is set indicating close to the exact cause.

The climate-control system shares information with the navigation and safety systems to determine your course, time of day, sun load and sun position, and where people are sitting. Adjustments are made to left, right or rear air temperature delivery to compensate for cabin temperature. Built-in diagnostics monitor components' function.

Your safety systems are another area brimming with smarts. Seat sensors indicate occupant weight and position to control airbags. If a passenger slumps against the door, perhaps napping, the side curtain airbag is told to stand down in a crash. Collision-mitigation and cruise-control systems benefit from forward scanning radar. If a threat or insufficient vehicle spacing becomes imminent, vehicle power reduction and braking may be automatically called to action. Lane-departure systems use video, cameras and laser and infrared sensors as input to pattern- and object-recognition processors to determine if a driver error is occurring. A stern warning, such as a tone, steering-wheel vibration or gentle steering correction will get the driver's attention and hopefully set things straight. Blind spot monitoring may use radar and cameras to keep you informed of trouble outside of your mirror's viewing area.

Probably the smartest feature I've seen is self-parking. I got a chance to play with a Lexus LS460 sedan about six years back at a Toyota technology presentation. After picking some really cramped and less-than-ideal parking spots — I wouldn't have tried them manually even in a smaller car — the system would steer brilliantly into them, or politely refuse. Silly and expensive, perhaps, but you have to marvel at the smarts!

Brad Bergholdt is an automotive technology instructor at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Calif. Readers may send him email at; he cannot make personal replies.

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