We Try 2012 Ford Explorer's New Lane-Keep Assist, Driver Monitor System

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Ford will offer lane keeping assist and driver alertness monitoring on the Explorer in 2012, and invited us to Dearborn to test it against some competitors’ systems.

The system relies on a camera mounted between the windshield and rearview mirror, which reads the lane markings. When it detects a driver drifting in the lane, it sends vibrations through the steering wheel as an alert. It can also provide a gentle input to return the vehicle to the center of the lane. If a driver drifts in the lane repeatedly it sounds a warning chime and displays a cup of coffee on the instrument panel.

Other automakers, including Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and Infiniti, offer comparable systems. Toyota also offers it on the Prius. Though only the Explorer will have lane keeping assist to begin with, Ford says it will soon proliferate to other models. The European-market Focus already offers the system. The only new hardware it requires is the camera, though it also depends a vehicle having electric (rather than hydraulic) power steering.

We tested an Explorer with lane keeping assist at Ford’s Dearborn proving grounds along with an Infiniti M37 and a Lexus HS2250h Hybrid. The differences among the systems are very subtle, but Ford has done a few things better. First, the Ford’s steering wheel vibration is both more effective and less annoying than warning chimes in the Infiniti and Lexus. The system allows you to turn off either the warning or assist, whereas the Infiniti only provides assistance if the warning system is enabled. Drivers can also program the level steering input provided to push the car back into its lane. In a higher setting, it’s more noticeable than the Lexus’s steering input but is still smoother than the Infiniti, which relies on stability control intervention to get the car back on course. We remain somewhat uncomfortable with any system that can actively change a car’s direction, but in a few emergency lane changes, never had to fight against the wheel. As in the Infiniti and Lexus, the lane-keeping function defaults to “off” each time you restart the vehicle, though it saves your settings.

Ford also announced that it is expanding the functionality of its programmable MyKey. The key, introduced earlier this year, allows parents to limit vehicle speed to 80 mph, cap radio volume, mute the radio entirely if the seatbelt is unfastened, and provide an earlier low-fuel warning (75 miles before empty instead of 50 miles). Parents can now choose to limit the top speed to 75, 70, or 65 mph, and can also block explicit satellite radio channels and put paired phones into “do not disturb” mode.

Ford hasn’t announced pricing on lane keeping assist, only saying that it “will be another affordable technology in the spirit of SYNC and other new Ford innovations.” MyKey is already standard on most Fords and Lincoln models.

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