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Hyundai's safe-exit assist is designed to prevent back-seat passengers from stepping out into

At a time when cars are packing all manner of technological safety features, plain old child-safety locks might seem a little old-fashioned. At least Hyundai believes so, which is why the car maker is adding radar to the equation.

Safe-exit assist is the company’s new high-tech lock feature, available with the 2019 Santa Fe and upcoming 2020 Palisade. A similar system is also available in the 2019 Elantra.

The feature uses existing blind-spot radar sensors to automatically keep rear doors locked if coming traffic is detected. It’s the latest example of an automaker squeezing more mileage out of technology that’s already in the car.

“This is essentially the engineers repurposing the sensors that already exist just to have a new feature,” says Terry Tizard, training manager for Hyundai Canada. “It’s meant to continually make a Hyundai the safest purchase you can buy.”

To activate safe-exit assist, the driver pushes a button located next to the main lock and power window controls. That activates the radar sensors hidden in the back bumper and keeps the rear doors locked if moving cars are detected off the vehicle’s flanks.

In such cases, a notification on the instrument panel lets the driver know that it may not be safe for occupants to exit. If the driver takes a look and decides it’s okay after all, he or she can override the locks by pushing the activation button a second time.

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Radar sensors detect if vehicles are approaching from the side, only allowing the back doors to unlock when the traffic is clear.Handout

One of the main goals of the feature, according to Hyundai, is to prevent kids from dashing out as soon as the car stops.

“You’ve got the opportunity to keep them safe a little bit longer and make sure the coast is clear,” Tizard says.

Adding safe-exit assist to vehicles is relatively simple, he adds, because it doesn’t require major investment or reconfiguration on Hyundai’s part. The system uses existing sensors and rear-door and window controls. The only thing engineers had to do was write some new code.

Industry observers expect automakers will come up with a range of new features in the near term based on a similar approach.

“It’s an integration of disparate systems that were designed to do one thing and they’re now seeing opportunities to do other things,” says Mark Boyadjis, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. “It’s a really creative opportunity.”

One possibility, he adds, is adding facial-recognition software to existing cameras located around the car. The rear camera that drivers typically use for backing up, for example, could also be made to automatically open the trunk when the vehicle owner is detected near it.

“It’s only going to continue to grow as you see more and more of these types of sensors become standard,” Boyadjis says.

Other observers point out that there could be a downside to these possible creative implementations. With each automaker experimenting with new features and little in the way of standardization, there’s a risk that consumers end up confused.

“We don’t want every manufacturer doing it their own unique way, particularly now that so many people are not even bothering with buying cars and are instead using them when they need them,” says David Ticoll, distinguished fellow at the University of Toronto’s Innovation Policy Lab.

“Every time they get into a new car, sometimes from the same manufacturer, it works differently.”

The side effect of that confusion, he says, is that consumers might end up avoiding using the features entirely. Standardization, probably through official regulation, may have to speed up to keep that from happening.

In the case of Hyundai’s safe-exit assist, Ticoll isn’t sure the feature will be useful for its intended purpose. Parents aren’t likely to allow children to exit vehicles on the traffic side regardless of whether automatic looks are engaged.

“You don’t want to let kids out that side no matter what,” he says.

The technology could be useful to prevent dooring, or cyclists crashing into suddenly opened doors, he adds, although that would likely require additional sensors beyond just radar – cameras with object recognition, for instance.

Hyundai says safe-exit assist does pick up bicycles and motorcycles, but the automaker admits it’s harder to do because of their more erratic movements. As for letting kids out into traffic, the company says it’s still a handy feature for those fast-moving situations that can happen in an instant.

“It’s for absent-minded adults as well,” Tizard says.

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