Lately there’s been a lot of chatter about self-driving cars, and indeed the technology is rapidly progressing to fruition. Google is moving forward in California to test such vehicles for eventual wider use. Simultaneously, electric cars are gaining prominence, and ultra-efficient models low on weight and high on aerodynamics are in demand.
Like any revolution, it starts with small steps.
In the automotive world, minor aids to improving convenience, safety, and autonomy have creeped into the market, first in luxury models, trickling into the mainstream.
In the past, comfort was a significant driver (pardon the pun). Plush, luxurious vehicles sold because of their creature comfort and style, not necessarily technology. At some point, you can only coddle so much.
Today, technology weighs nearly equally on the success of a model. How well connected is it, how user-friendly is it? How many neat, computer-driven features does it include?
Some of the modern tech features that I’ve used recently will certainly find their way into all cars at some point:
Removes one step from the entry-exit-lock-unlock process. Keep the key in your pocket, and just touch the door to gain access, and in most cases, start the vehicle with the push of a button. All based on proximity sensors in the car and the key. Some systems work better than others – and beware – if your key battery dies, the feature dies too.
New BMWs features ‘wave your foot below the trunk’ and voila, your trunk or rear hatch opens. Handy.
Ultrasonic Parking Sensors
Nothing new here, circa late 90s. Ultrasonic waves similar to those used in an ultrasound are bounced out from the car’s front and rear bumpers, which can then sense how close a solid object is to the vehicle. Especially useful for reversing. Many cars provide a visual display as well as an audible one.
Related: backup cameras. IMO, less precise than parking sensors, but still useful as redundant safety feature. Coming soon to all cars in America, though legislation pushed back to 2015.
Many models also offer side and top-view cameras, which give a total surround-view image of the car. Which leads me into the next…
Blind Spot Assist
Pioneered by Ford/Volvo, but now widely available, this feature monitors a car’s blind spot and shows when there is an obstacle to changing lanes. Another useful invention, but I have a hard time relying on it entirely – still like to glance over my shoulder.
Electronic Emergency Brake
Frees up space, works more precisely, and who doesn’t like more buttons?
Auto-hold Emergency Brake
This is the real advantage with an electronic emergency/parking break. Engage auto-hold, and any time you come to a full stop, the parking break automatically engages, meaning you can remove your foot from the brake pedal while you wait at a light. Step onto the gas, and the e-brake disengages seamlessly. Really.
Automatic Engine Start-Stop
A gas-saving feature. Come to a complete stop, under certain circumstances (not immediately after start-up, not under heavy A/C), and the engine shuts down automatically to save fuel, while the electronics and A/C continue to function. Lift off the brake (or hit the gas if auto-hold is engaged), and the engine re-fires instantly.
Unsettling at first, but neat nonetheless.
Power-fold Side Mirrors
No major invention here, but cool and useful for tight parking or looking smug getting out of your slick machine.
Personally I don’t have problems parallel parking, but many do, and many models are now available with parking systems that, given the correct prompted inputs, will twirl the steering wheel at perfect angles and speeds to squeeze into a spot in a jif.
Motorized Door Latches
This seems frivolous, but I hate slamming doors (or trunks). Tap a button or pull a door closed gently, and let a motor close it gently for you. How dainty.
Most standard headlamps suffice for most driving conditions. Occasionally though, an upgrade is nice. Xenon headlamps are a nearly 20 year-old technology now (as an upgrade from incandescent), but LEDs are moving in to offer even better visibility. And, they look cool. Most of these types integrate an active swivel feature, which curves the overall beam of light to either side, depending on turn signal and steering wheel inputs.
More Digital Displays
As seen in the first photo…everything is being displayed as if on a computer desktop, or smartphone screen. The graphics are more advanced, and the flexibility of the displays is expanding exponentially. Displays are more redundant too, to reduce distracted driving.
Sophisticated Cruise Control
Using radar, cameras, and lots of computers, you can specify parameters for cruise control that will be maintained automatically by the vehicle (within reason), using throttle and braking. Some systems combine lane-keeping assistance to further monitor movements and make adjustments automatically.
These features are already second-nature for many luxury car drivers. For others, they’re a novelty worthy of note – hence this post. As we know, all technology eventually becomes affordable enough for everyone to enjoy.
Taken individually, they are minor at best. Taken on a whole, they change the way you drive. It becomes less stressful, more precise, and safer.