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Photo: SolStock via Getty Images

All vehicles could soon be equipped with warning systems aimed at preventing children from dying in hot cars, but safety advocates say a law working its way through Congress won't do enough to save lives.

Why it matters: Nearly 40 children die every year of heatstroke because they were left in the back seat by a parent or caregiver — or climbed inside a car on their own. Since 1990, approximately 1,000 kids have died nationwide, according to KidsAndCars.org.

  • Four have died this month to date, including a baby who suffocated in a car after her mother was shot and killed in Orlando, Florida, and twin toddlers who died in a hot car in South Carolina.

Driving the news: The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last month would require new motor vehicles to have an alert system that would remind people to check the back seat upon exiting the car.

  • The House expects to take up the bill this month.
  • The law would replace a voluntary commitment by automakers to equip virtually every new car with a rear-seat reminder system by the 2025 model year.

Where it stands: Many new models now come with such reminders via a text message in the instrument cluster, typically accompanied by a chime, when the engine is turned off.

  • I drove a 2022 Nissan Pathfinder recently that annoyingly honked six times at me whenever I walked away from the vehicle; I finally realized it was the rear-seat reminder.
  • I repeatedly dismissed the warning on the steering wheel, but to permanently shut it off, I would have had to tinker with the car's settings.

How it works: Most rear-seat reminders are triggered by "door logic" — that is, the system recognizes that the driver opened a rear door at the beginning of the trip.

Yes, but: that technology doesn't know whether the driver opened the door to put groceries or a purse in the back seat — or to buckle in a child.

  • And it doesn't address the issue of unattended children climbing into a car by themselves — about 25% of all hot car deaths.

What's needed: Cars need more than just a dashboard reminder that can be easily ignored or dismissed by the driver, says Emily A. Thomas, automotive safety engineer at Consumer Reports.

  • They need technology that can actually detect the presence of a car occupant.
  • So far, only Korean models sold under the Hyundai, Kia and Genesis brands have ultrasonic sensors that can detect movement inside the vehicle — but they are not standard on all models.
  • The new Genesis GV70 SUV goes a step further with a more sensitive radar sensor that is able to detect a baby's breath.

What they're saying: Carmakers can — and should — do more, said Janette E. Fennell, president of KidsAndCars.org.

  • "You can't purchase a vehicle today that doesn't automatically turn off your headlights when you get out of the car. Who decided it's more important not to have a dead car battery than a dead baby?"

What to watch: The occupant detection systems that could prevent children from dying in hot cars operate on the same technology that autonomous vehicles will need in the future to detect and monitor passengers, she noted.

Go deeper

Dec 22, 2021 - Technology

What we're driving: 2021 Mercedes S-class

Navigation using Mercedes-Benz's augmented reality head-up display. Image: Mercedes-Benz

Cars are getting more and more sophisticated, but you haven't seen anything until you've experienced the 3D driver display and augmented reality system in Mercedes-Benz's flagship S-class sedan.

  • It's one of the most exciting technology features I've encountered in a vehicle.

Why it matters: Technology that debuts on the Mercedes S-class typically winds up in more plebeian vehicles five or 10 years later.

Details: I test drove the 2021 S580 sedan, which is everything you'd expect from a $131,500 Mercedes-Benz — smooth, luxurious and comfortable, all the way down to the 10 seat massage modes and the plush pillows in the headrest.

  • And it's packed with technology, including Mercedes' next-generation infotainment system, featuring a nearly 13-inch touchscreen and voice-activated digital assistant.

What really blew me away, though, was the car's dazzling head-up display with augmented reality.

  • I'm a big fan of head-up displays, which project key information like the speed and direction of travel onto the windshield to help drivers keep their eyes where they should be, rather than looking down at a center touchscreen.
  • Adding augmented reality makes the technology even more useful.

How it works: I plugged in my destination, and a little blue arrow came to life on the windshield telling me when and where to turn.

  • It felt like I was following an animated bird.
  • The arrow multiplied and resembled a flock of birds, which grew larger as my turn approached.
  • After completing the turn, the arrow shrunk again until the next maneuver.
  • As I neared my destination, a floating checkered flag inside a map icon grew larger.

I also noticed that when driving with Mercedes' highway assisted-driving technology switched on, a green pathway projected on the windshield told me when and where it was safe to pass.

The augmented reality system works in concert with the super-cool 3D display on the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel, displaying the same information in a different format — but without 3D glasses.

  • Images in the head-up display can also appear on the car's center touchscreen, if desired.

The bottom line: The 3D augmented reality package is a $3,000 option, but when you're already spending that much on a Mercedes, why not?

Democratic retirements spark worry over holding House majority

Data: House Press Gallery; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) is the latest lawmaker to announce that he will not seek re-election this year, bringing the total number of Democratic retirements to 29, compared with 14 Republicans.

Why it matters: The increasing number of Democratic retirements — put against the backdrop of President Biden's sagging approval ratings and uncertainty about redistricting — is adding to concerns the party may not be able to keep its slim majority in the House.

Updated 9 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.