Cars with brains go mainstream

LOS ANGELES –  The Auto Show is under way in Los Angeles, an annual showcase for all the newest ways technology is influencing car design. What not too long ago seemed like extravagant, luxury options may soon be showing up on dashboards as standard features. The car of the future could be just a few short years away.

It's a major theme at this year's L.A. Auto Show: cars with brains.  

"Now with the E and the S class we have a car that can actually steer itself," said Bart Herring of Mercedes Benz.

Mercedes uses radar, sonar and infrared sensors along with two video cameras to help the vehicle "see" the road ahead, enabling the car to react much more quickly than the driver. A commercial says, "It can stop itself if it has to!"

But collision-avoidance technology, once confined to luxury cars, is going mainstream.

Subaru's Dominick Infante says its new system may soon be standard equipment in the United States. He says the technology has been common in Japan for almost a decade. If the driver doesn't hit the brakes on time, the system will do it.

"It's an unusual feeling as it takes over, but I'll tell you, as long as you have faith in it, it will stop the car," Infante said.

This year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety added something new to its crash tests: a category called crash avoidance. In a test conducted at 25 mph, Subaru got top marks.

Auto Tech journalist Doug Newcomb says that with so many distractions on the road, "drivers become complacent."

"And that's the whole idea behind the technology is to look out for them when they're not paying attention," he said.

The technology is not intended to completely take over for the driver, but it can take some of the load off.

Mercedes has a model that can halt and start itself in stop-and-go traffic.

"That's really one more step to the ability to have autonomous driving," Herring said.

 A spage-age dream may soon be a reality.

"We're a lot closer to cards driving themselves than a lot of people imagine," said Newcomb.