You might think automakers these days would be focusing their technological imaginations on improving fuel efficiency, but a review of advances in auto gadgetry for 2009 shows crash prevention is tops on the list.

“We’re seeing more and more features that are intended to help drivers avoid collisions,” says David Zuby, senior vice president of vehicle research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS.

As the automakers roll out new technology, you’ll likely see it first in “luxury and/or foreign brands,” says Zuby. “Like a lot of safety technology, that initial technology is expensive. It’s easy to put them in luxury brands.”

Here are some of the technological innovations you are (or will be) seeing on new vehicles.

New car gadgets for ’09
Safety features Comforts and work features
Emergency brake assist. Tool inventory system.
Forward collision warning. Scratch-correcting paint.
Lane departure warning. Refrigerator.
Blind-spot detection. Portable navigation systems.
Adaptive headlights. Remote start.
Adaptive cruise control. Phone service.
Push-button start.

Emergency brake assist: Adds extra stopping power when you brake suddenly. “There are sensors on the brake pedal to try and figure out if this is an emergency or just normal,” says Zuby.

According to the IIHS, some makers using versions of this technology include Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and Volvo.

Forward collision warning: Sensors in the front of the car (often radar or lasers), detect “objects the driver may crash into,” says Zuby. The car then warns the driver. The exact nature of the signal will vary with the manufacturer. Volvo flashes something on the windshield that resembles a line of tail lights, says Zuby. Other makers may use sounds or special lights in the instrument cluster. If the system is connected to a brake-assist feature, the vehicle may even apply the brakes slightly.

According to the institute, some makers using versions of this technology include Acura, Mercedes and Volvo.

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Lane departure warning: This will warn you if you drift from one lane into another without using a turn signal. With some makers the warning is a light, a buzzer or a vibrating steering wheel (similar to driving over a pitted road).

Others take a more active approach: applying the brakes slightly or altering the direction of the vehicle. “We’re getting some feedback that drivers find the feature annoying in some situations,” he says. “The big question is: Will drivers respond in a way that avoids a crash?” says Zuby. With some false warnings, “it can be disconcerting,” especially if you’re trying to pass another car and your vehicle is braking or changing course, he says. “Some systems are going to be better than others at avoiding those situations,” Zuby says.

Manufacturers using versions of this technology include Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Infiniti and Volvo.

Blind-spot detection: Cameras (sometimes with sonar), help the driver when something encroaches into those blind spots. “If you indicate a lane change, and there’s something there, it will throw a warning saying ‘Do you really want to do that?'” says Zuby.

Manufacturers using versions of this technology include: Audi, Buick, Cadillac, Mazda, Mercedes and Volvo.

Adaptive headlights: Ever wish you could see around corners? Some vehicles have the technology to do just that. At night, as you turn, instead of headlights going straight ahead and lighting the path where your car isn’t, they turn and shift the focus to your car’s actual path.

Manufacturers using versions of this technology include Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Maserati, Porsche, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Adaptive cruise control: Makes adjustments to your cruise control based on the speed and closing distance between you and vehicles in front of you.

Some makers using versions of this technology include: Chrysler, Honda, Infiniti, Subaru and Toyota.

Creature comforts and work features

Not every gadget is safety-related. Here are some high-tech toys that are designed for work or play.

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Tool inventory system: Wonder if you packed a specific piece of equipment or tool? Ask your truck.

How it works: Drivers tag the items with radio-frequency identification chips and input that inventory into a dashboard computer. When the truck is on, dual antennas scan the tool box for the items and show the results on the computer screen.

One manufacturer using this technology is Ford, which calls it “Tool Link.”

Scratch-correcting paint: After a scratch, this clear coat “will gel back together and heal itself,” says Bob Yakushi, director of product safety at Nissan North America. It takes “a couple of days in moderate temperatures,” he says. (Warmth and light help it work.) In winter or colder temperatures, he adds, it could take a few extra days.

One manufacturer using this technology is Infiniti, which calls it “Scratch Shield.”

Refrigerator: Some vehicles will carry refrigerators big enough to stash lunch or chill a few bottles of water. Consumers can set the temperature to refrigerate or freeze.

Ford is one automaker using this technology.

Portable navigation systems: With some high-tech packages, automakers are including navigation systems that users can remove and carry with them, says Brian Moody, road test editor for Edmunds.com. This allows you to carry it with you when you travel and put it into a rental car or take it on a hike.

Toyota, Hyundai and Volvo are among the automakers using variations of this technology, says Moody.

Remote start: This will start the car before you even get in, but you have to be within a certain distance. Available for a few years and standard on many higher priced cars, it’s now showing up on more affordable models, says Moody.

Phone service: Many automakers are coming up with various ways of integrating phone service into vehicles. It can qualify as a safety feature if you ever break down or need roadside assistance. But driving and chatting increases the likelihood you’ll be in an accident, says Zuby. Studies by the IIHS (as well as other groups) show that your chances of being in an accident quadruple if you’re talking on your cell phone, whether you’re holding it or going hands-free, he says.

Push-button start: You’ve heard of keyless entry? This is a keyless starter. Instead of inserting a key, you press a button. But don’t expect the engine to turn over for just anyone. With the Prius, you need to have the “electronic key fob” in your pocket. Expect to see more push-button starter mechanisms in the future, says Moody. “More people are adding them to their cars. They’re more convenient.”

Dana Dratch is an Atlanta-based writer who covers finance and lifestyle issues for national publications.

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