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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Driving into the future -- Part I
America's automotive past

Tacoma's new car museum honors the American automobile

Since the first automobiles went on sale in the late 19th century, humankind has had a very close relationship with the car. Back in those early days when Karl Benz invented the first modern automobile, few people could have imagined how the car would reshape our entire civilization.

Though the automobile has had a profound impact on virtually every nation, no country has been more deeply affected by it than the U.S. Unlike many historic cities such as Rome or London, which had to adapt themselves to the invention of the automobile, a large number of American cities were built around the car. In the U.S., the automobile is a symbol of personal freedom.

Now the U.S. is celebrating its unique relationship to the automobile with the opening of Tacoma's new LeMay-America's Car Museum. On June 2, the best of the collection owned by the late waste-management magnate Harold E. LeMay finally pulled into a new home that city and museum officials hope will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Before he died in 2000, Harold LeMay turned a good part of his waste-disposal fortune into four-wheeled fancies. He bought practically everything that caught his eye, eventually amassing some 3,000 cars and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest privately owned automotive collection.

The museum will house 700 automobiles, most of them LeMay's and some on loan. It has 15 galleries for cars, trucks and motorcycles; a banquet center; a cafe; a gift shop; an educational center; a theater; and an outdoor space for car shows, concerts and drive-in movies.

Of course, in the end it is all about the cars: The 1969 Ford Thunderbird, the 1932 Chevrolet "Huckster Truck," and the 1930 Duesenberg Model J. There's a 1994 Flintmobile that was made for "The Flintstones" movie of the same year. And there's an AMC Pacer. "We consider ourselves top dogs when it comes to cars," said Scot Keller, chief marketing and communications officer for the new museum.

The most important car for Keller? The 1963 Corvette with the split window. "See? It doesn't have to be a special car," he said. It's the emotional connection people have to these automobiles that's important. "It's the memories, the stories," said Keller. "The museum is designed up to stir up people's emotions."

An end to accidents

How 'connected' cars will soon change the way we drive

The future of automotive safety is coming to the U.S. this summer: Cars that talk to each other and warn drivers of impending accidents.

The U.S. government is launching a yearlong, real-world test involving nearly 3,000 cars, trucks and buses using volunteer drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The vehicles will be equipped to continuously communicate over wireless networks, exchanging information on location, direction and speed 10 times a second with other similarly equipped cars within about 300 meters. A computer analyzes the information and issues warnings to drivers about potential collisions.

Called vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V, more advanced versions of the systems can take control of a car to prevent an accident by applying the brakes when the driver reacts too slowly. V2V "is our next evolutionary step to make sure a crash never happens in the first place," said David Strickland, administrator of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Overall, more than 32,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. last year.

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