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Carmakers up high tech offerings

The Lexus SC430, the drop-top coupe from the Japanese luxury brand, has just picked up knee-protection airbags.

BMW is touting the night-vision system in its flagship cars and the Honda Legend comes with an active all-wheel-drive system.

It all sounds great if you have at least $80,000 in your new-car kick, but there are bigger benefits than a few cashed-up car owners with new bells and whistles.

What they are driving today will eventually be fitted to ordinary cars for ordinary showroom shoppers.

There was a time when only the most exotic cars had electric windows and mirrors, but now they are common. Parking sensors is still considered a semi-luxury feature, but is standard on the $13,990 Proton Savvy.

We should all be keeping an eye on breakthroughs at brands such as Mercedes-Benz, which led the car world into the anti-skid braking era in 1978 - when only planes had the systems.

It has recently previewed a range of safety systems that will trickle down to the rest of the car business. Its "Pre-safe" innovation, which senses an impending crash and moves the seats back and pre-sets the airbags and belt tensioners, is one of the best.

Mercedes-Benz Australia says Night Vision Assist has been a hit this year, even if it is only available on the super-luxury S-Class - starting price $187,900 - and is pushing ahead with the second generation of its radar cruise system.

"More than one-third of our S-Class customers have taken Night Vision Assist. That's about 170 cars since the start of the year," Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman David McCarthy says.

But it's not cheap.

"It's $4090 on the S-350 and $3590 on the S-500. It's standard on the S-600," he says.

But that figure will fall as technology and mass production cut the unit costs.

"People recognise the benefits of technology from a safety perspective and it also makes driving less stressful. That's the same whether it is night vision or parking radar or Distronic Plus cruise control," McCarthy says.

The latest version of Distronic will be available soon. It intervenes with more braking power if a vehicle ahead slows suddenly and can also bring a Benz to a complete stop and keep pace with stop-start traffic.

And what's around the corner? Better radar parking systems, for a start, which tap into the low-speed engineering in the new version of Distronic. Benz is working on more and better airbags, with fuel-cell electric cars also on the program.