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Technology assists drivers but shouldn't take over

What can your car do for you today?

If it's a 2012 Ford Focus, it can help you parallel park — first, by using sonar to measure the space for your vehicle; then, by steering into the space by itself while you work the gas pedal and brake.

That pesky blind spot the high-school driving instructor warned you to check before changing lanes• The 2012 BMW 3 Series sedan is equipped with a rear-mounted radar sensor that detects nearby vehicles and signals the driver by means of a flashing yellow triangle in the side-view mirror.

The 3 Series Sedan also features a Lane Departure Warning System, in which the steering wheel vibrates should a driver begin to drift out of his lane.

In saving us from ourselves, are these innovations making us less self-reliant• Few retail cashiers make change anymore — the machines do it for them. Calculators have obviated the need to do long division. And why memorize a phone number, because it's programmed into our smartphone?

This push-button mentality can have dangerous consequences. In August, an official serving on an advisory committee to the Federal Aviation Administration said that commercial airline pilots were "forgetting how to fly" because they relied too much on in-flight computer systems. When a sudden mechanical failure necessitated a switch to manual control, pilots often were confused or unnerved. The report linked pilot error to hundreds of fatalities in "loss of control" crashes.

"I think the automobile industry needs to take a look at what the aviation industry finally realized this year, tha automation in the cockpit is making pilots less skilled," says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist in the MIT AgeLab who studies human interaction and adaptation to new vehicle technology.

Both Ford and BMW say their intelligent vehicle features are not intended to relieve a driver of responsibility.

"These technologies are to assist the driver but not take over for the driver," says Ford spokesman Octavio Navarro. "With Active Park Assistance for instance, although the technology takes the worry out of identifying a space then steering into it, the driver must still shift the car in reverse and work the gas and brake. So, the driver must always be engaged."

Driver education is not keeping pace with the advance of this new technology, says Reimer, who also is associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT.

"People need to be trained," he says. "People need to understand that what this 3,000-pound paperweight moving at 70 miles per hour really does."

The right technology can be beneficial. Reimer says a flashing light on the side-view mirror of a car that alerts the driver to the proximity of another vehicle can be effective because, "You've got to at least look at the mirror to get the information. You should notice the car at the same time."

But, no sensor or camera can substitute for the function of the human brain, he says — at least until a fully automated vehicle can be designed, which Reimer doesn't see happening anytime soon.

Bill Visnic, analyst and senior editor at vehicle-information website Edmunds.com, says critics also assailed automatic transmission, power steering and cruise control when automakers introduced them.

While innovations such as blind-spot warning systems could lull some drivers into a false sense of security, the safety trade-off is worth it, he says.

"I can see where it can cause people to drive the car in a more careless fashion," Visnic says. "I think that's the danger, that you do become a little complacent when you have these things backing you up."

Aaron Steinfeld works at the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He is project lead on Safe Driving, a cluster of projects that develop intelligent vehicle technology for the elderly and disabled.

One of these is Virtual Valet, a semi-autonomous parking system that allows drivers to get out of their vehicle and use video streaming on their smartphone to supervise the car as it parks itself. The vehicle keeps track of where it is, using lasers, cameras and inertial sensors.

"There are always going to be things that will reduce your skills," Steinfeld says. "(But) if you look at the systems that survive in the market, someone perceives the value in these systems. That's why these systems are being sold.

"It comes back to that question — Does the benefit outweigh the cost• Is there an improvement in overall safety• Is there an improvement in overall quality of life?"

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