Smart Rides

Dec. 14, 2006
Do people value the new generation of smart features built into today's autos? The first annual Smart Ride competition attempted to find out.

Associate Editor

Stephen Mraz
Senior Editor

Leland Teschler

MACHINE DESIGN Video Exclusive
Smart Ride judges evaluate new automotive technologies!

At Dana Corp.'s Technical Resource Park, Smart Ride participants put vehicles through a variety of driving scenarios designed to show how smart features perform. A parallel parking problem exercised back-up radar and video systems. Judges took vehicles carrying crash mitigation and adaptive cruise-control systems around a closed track under the supervision of engineers from Continental Automotive Systems Div. A slalom course around traffic cones demonstrated electronic stability control and such features as speed-sensitive steering. Judges also looped around public roads to grapple with nav systems and vehicle-location systems.

Readers who peruse MACHINE DESIGN's car reviews can appreciate that our editors see a steady stream of test vehicles. But something interesting has been happening over the past year on the review-vehicle front. Increasingly editors would come back in a state of frustration from a first encounter with a new review car. They were forced to spend more and more time trying to understand the basics of the vehicle's operation before they could take it out of the garage.

The irony was that vehicles most likely to demand lengthy study were the high-end cars, trucks, and SUVs sporting numerous functions billed by automakers as being smart features. It took an appreciable effort to decipher the setup procedures for many of these systems. After investing time and energy in getting a vehicle to display its IQ, many of us were left wondering whether the whole ordeal was worth it.

Things came to a point one morning when one of our editors, fresh from matching wits with an SUV, muttered, "If that car is so smart, how come I feel so dumb when I try to drive it?"

From that remark sprang the idea for MACHINE DESIGN's first Smart Ride event. Smart Ride attempts to determine what ordinary consumers think of new functions being promoted as smart features. To do so, we recruited a field of judges and convened at Dana Corp.'s Technical Resource Park near Toledo, Ohio. There, judges got to try their hand operating a collection of 16 new vehicles boasting an array of advanced systems in areas ranging from passenger comfort to crash mitigation.

We asked judges to comment on which of these features appealed to them and which didn't seem worth the bother. We also wanted their opinions on how well specific options lived up to the promises of their promoters.

Finally, we had judges evaluate the crash-avoidance and crash-mitigation systems increasingly used on mainstream vehicles. To keep things safe, our main Smart Ride sponsor Continental Automotive Systems dispatched a team of engineers who took judges through demonstrations of these systems — under safe conditions — at Dana's oval track.

When the day was done and the judging was complete, four vehicles stood out for their use of smart features. Our Best Value award recognized that different smart features are practical for vehicles in different price ranges. So the Best Value award factored in vehicle list price to get a value-perdollars-spent figure and the Mazda CX-7 led the field.

Also clear from the scoring was that judges valued smart safety features. One vehicle, the Mercedes S550 sedan, emerged as the point leader in safety and earned its own special award.

The vehicle garnering the most points overall for effective use of smart features was the Acura RL. And the Audi A8 W12 Quattro AT6 got points in the widest number of categories, earning it the distinction of a Judges' Choice award.


Judges had a lot to say about how various smart features performed. By the end of the day, they'd formed opinions about some of those smart features, and the opinions weren't all good. Safety systems, in general, got high marks though a few judges couldn't figure out some of the subtleties of how these systems were supposed to operate. Navigation systems were a mixed bag. Some seemed straightforward, others needlessly complex. Interestingly, we got few comments about the smart systems on the hybrids we had at the track. Most judges, it seems, were too busy figuring out how these vehicles performed on the road to worry much about their IQ.

Feature: Adaptive cruise control
Some comments:
Nice and predictable. Operates as expected. Displays target speed versus actual speed — Difficult to set up — A great safety factor. With it, the car handled smoothly and comfortably.
General consensus: Thumbs Up

Feature: Navigation system
Some comments:
Did not care for the system. It was not as easy to use as the others — System has a relatively clumsy interface and the display is small — Interface difficult to understand. And somewhat inconvenient in that you have to insert a CD-based navigation database for the region you are traveling through — Liked touchscreen interface — I could program it without going to the manual — Took too long to set — Difficult to set up — Additional nav info on display in instrument cluster is a nice touch — I could not make it work — Not easy to engage. I went to the manual and it said to use another manual — Method of using knobs to make selections is very slow and tedious — Joystick data entry was simple to use. Nav commands were timely, accurate — Control for nav system was located too far away from the display.
General consensus:
Thumbs Down and Thumbs Up

Feature: Backup sensors
Some comments:
Backup sensors give good feedback — Audio seemed more effective than LED bar graph, but not as effective as video — The vehicle (Lincoln Navigator) was so large that it definitely needed the sensors to park — The backup sensors and the oversized outside mirrors made this large SUV easy to park — A beeper is a minimum requirement for a vehicle this size and with its limited visibility — The camera gave a good view out the back and displayed grid lines that anticipated the vehicle's direction based on steering-wheel inputs — Backup camera is excellent and with the sensor, I was able to stop within a foot of an obstacle — My respect for rearview cameras continues to climb — I'd rather have the audible beep tones than the camera. And the fish-eye lens distorts the view — Dual indicators for left and right sides is a nice feature — I didn't like the camera system. It was difficult to tell where you were — They are a real advantage for parallel parking.
General consensus:
Thumbs Up

Feature: Hybrids
Some comments:
Shifting wasn't smooth — Hybrid drive was transparent in operation. Transitions between electric motor and gas engine seamlessly — Worked well. If they weren't so much more expensive and the batteries were not a problem in terms of replacement and safety, I might think about buying one — I didn't know what to expect, but it drove very well — Made a high-pitch whine when braking, which would take a while to get use to — Pick up and braking were crisp and steady. Info and gages related to the hybrid driver were good.
General consensus: Thumbs Down and Thumbs Up

Feature: Traction/stability control
Some comments:
ESP worked well, especially on wet asphalt — ESP cut back on throttle , which didn't let the car perform as it can — Vehicle kept its track where I wouldn't have expected it to — Traction control kicked in on a tight turn and it gave me a nice, "planted" feel.

General consensus: Thumbs Up

Vehicle Category
Mercedes-Benz S550 sedan Safety and Security
Acura RL Highest IQ
Mazda CX-7 Best Value
Audi A8 W12 quattro AT6 Judge's Choice
Other vehicles competing: Nissan Armada, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Chrysler 300C, Dodge Charger, Cadillac DTS, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Lexus 400H, Mercury Mountaineer, Audi Q7, Volkswagen Touareg, Lincoln Navigator


One problem with evaluating smart automotive features is that the same feature can carry a different name when used by different automakers. Here are a few of the more widely used features and what various carmakers typically call them.

Feature name: Information refinement What it does: Basically speech recognition for nav systems Comment: The system asks you to name a nearby landmark if it can't figure out what the heck you're talking about.

Feature name: Multimedia Infotainment System What it does: Usually bundles a nav system with audio and DVD players plus hard-drive storage.

Comment: Some of these give traffic updates and let you do things with music and DVDs that you'd be safer doing in your living room instead of while driving.

Feature name: Vehicle Stability Assist, Vehicle Dynamic Control, Electronic Stabilization Program, StabiliTrak, Dynamic Traction Control, and many more What it does: These are all stability systems. They look at steering and braking inputs and the vehicle's response, then brake individual wheels and possibly cut engine power to help correct plowing or fishtailing.

Comment: These systems also integrate traction control, which senses drive-wheel slip under acceleration and individually brakes the slipping wheel or wheels and manages engine power until things are under control.

Feature name: Active Cruise Control , Adaptive Cruise Control, Intelligent Cruise Control, Dynamic Laser Cruise Control, Distronic Plus, and so forth What it does: Radar, a laser scanner, or both tell the vehicle to slow when coming up on another vehicle and let it accelerate again to a preset speed when traffic clears. Some systems also let drivers choose a preset following distance.

Comment: The system warns the driver if a vehicle in front — given the speed of both vehicles — comes too close. The real meaning of the warning: Get off your cell phone, dimwit.

Feature name: Collision Mitigation Avoidance System, Pre-Crash, Pre-Safe system What it does: Usually coupled with adaptive cruise control. Will tighten the seat belts, boosting brake pressure, and even applying the brakes if radar says a crash is coming. Some also monitor the rear of the vehicle and can adjust the headrests to reduce whiplash injuries. Comment: The system employed in the Mercedes S-Class can also close all windows and sunroof if necessary.

Feature name: Lane-departure warning system What it does: Cameras mounted on the outside mirrors monitor the striping on Interstate highway lanes. A mechanism in the car seat vibrates on the side corresponding to the direction of vehicle drift to alert the driver. The system can even steer the car back into its lane. Comment: Some versions also use infrared sensors under the front bumper to sense the lane stripes.

Feature name: Sequential SportShift, Tiptronic, Steptronic, AutoStick, Sensodrive, AutoStick, iShift, S-matic, and many others What it does: These all refer to transmission electronics that let the driver override the automatic shift by moving the shift lever (or a paddle shifter on the steering wheel) into a second shift gate to take over shifting decisions ordinarily performed by the transmission computer. Comment: Besides operating in the well-known Comfort and Sport driving modes, the transmission itself may select other unspecified modes to adapt to the operator's driving style.

Feature name: Surround sound, DVD-A, SACD, ambisonics, quadraphonic, Dolby 5.1 surround, DTS, DVD-V, MP3 Surround, and others What it does: These are all surround-sound systems. They play music through multiple speakers and digital signal processors or digital audio processors to simulate surround sound from stereo sources. Comment: It's one thing to get surround sound in your living room, quite another to make it effective in a vehicle experiencing road and wind noise and varying acoustics caused by the presence or absence of passengers.

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