The weather’s getting colder, the leaves are falling, and the pumpkin spice is flowing. That can only mean one thing — holiday season 2017 has arrived. It’s a time of festivity, family bonding, and rampant consumerism, but whatever you’re celebrating, there’s a lot to be thankful for.
Today, we’re keeping our focus narrow and highlighting some truly amazing automotive tech that we often take for granted. There are cars on the road right now that can effectively drive themselves, park without any human intervention, and even update themselves wirelessly without ever leaving the driveway. Call us old fashioned, but that’s pretty incredible.
For this list, we’re focusing on common car features, with a few obscurities thrown in for good measure. Here are 20 car technologies we’re thankful for this holiday season.
Heated and ventilated seats
Heated seats have been around for quite some time now, but that doesn’t make them any less awesome. Few sensations rival the warm embrace of heated leather around your backside in winter, except perhaps a cooled one in summer. Add in a massage function and you’ll be happy as a clam.
Though the 1972 Saab 99 is sometimes credited with offering the first heated seats, Cadillac actually made the feature available on the Fleetwood luxury car in 1966. The option was quite rare, though, and warmth was distributed via carbon-cloth heating pads. Whomever is responsible, our lower backs collectively thank you.
The next feature we’ve chosen to honor is much more modern one — adaptive cruise control (ACC). Systems can vary from automaker to automaker, but all ACCs use some sort of radar/camera system to track the vehicles ahead and adjust speed accordingly. While regular cruise control holds the car at a steady velocity until the driver intervenes, ACC will speed up or slow based on the position of the cars in front, reducing fatigue. Some will even bring you a complete stop when necessary, allowing the driver to set off again with a quick touch of the “Resume” button. For best results, pair with lane keeping assist for a stress-free ride.
Completely autonomous cars are still years away, but semi-autonomous features like this are a glimpse into a driverless future.
There was once a time where, in order to see what was behind you, you actually had to turn your head and look. We still think it’s a good idea, but when entry-level cars like the $15,790 Honda Fit come with a backup camera as standard, you don’t really have to. In fact, rearview cameras will be required on all vehicles under 10,000 pounds come 2018.
The benefits of these devices are obvious. With a high-resolution image to reference, it becomes much more difficult (though not impossible) to run over the recycling bins at the end of the driveway, and with parking sensors enabled, backing into a tight spot has never been easier. Some cars even offer 360-degree cameras for even greater visibility. Has one of these devices saved your bumper before? Let us know in the comments.
The 2013 Ford Escape is the best car in the world – If your hands are full of groceries in the pouring rain, that is.
The automatic liftgate, aka the hands-free liftgate, was first introduced on the aforementioned Escape crossover for the 2013 model year. Though the “foot-activated” system didn’t always work properly — leaving frustrated commuters kicking their cars like an angry Michael Flatley — it did pave the way for one of the most convenient and smart technologies out there.
Thankfully, modern examples of the automatic liftgate don’t require Taekwondo training to operate. Simply walk up to your vehicle with the key fob in range and the car will sense it and automatically open for you.
Ambient interior lighting
Ambient interior lighting may not be very high-tech, but boy is it fun. Normally found on high-end luxury cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, LED lighting can generally be adjusted to different colors and levels of brightness, making drivers and passengers feel like they’re in a high-end club rather than a car. You can even channel Star Trek by putting the cabin into “Red Alert” mode, but you’ll have to make the sounds yourself … if you’re into that sort of thing.
Non-luxury automakers are clearly recognizing the value of this feature, as ambient interior lighting has made its way downmarket. For instance, the 2015 Kia Soul offers mood lighting in five colors, the brightness of which can change based on the intensity of your music.
Keyless entry and push-button start
We’re approaching a time where old-fashioned car keys will go the route of the floppy disc — obsolete, clumsy, and forgotten. Most new cars offer an electronic key fob as opposed to a standard key, which allows drivers to lock, unlock, and start their vehicle from afar. And with their proximity sensors, fobs can automatically unlock a car’s door when the driver touches the handle, which is handy when you have bags, children, animals, or bags of children and animals in your hands.
Once inside, you’ll find yet another function made possible by the key fob —push-button start. Not only is keyless ignition the biggest advancement in vehicle starting technology since, well, the key, it immediately increases the perceived value of the car. Just hit the switch and go.
In-car navigation has sure come a long way. When the first GPS units starting showing up in the 1990s, they were laughably slow and inaccurate, often taking several seconds to respond to simple commands like zoom in or zoom out. While car manufacturer systems still lag behind smartphone navigation in many ways, they’re certainly getting better, and they’ll still get you out of asking for directions.
Modern navigation technology can search for local points of interest, download traffic data, automatically detour in case of an accident, and much, much more. What’s next? Smarter head-up displays, holographic windshield projection, more Cloud connectivity, and cool gizmos like Jaguar Land Rover’s 360 Virtual Urban Windscreen.
While we’re on the subject of navigation, let’s move onto one of our favorite topics here at DT Cars — smartphone integration.
The marriage between cell phone and car used to be limited to USB ports for charging and Bluetooth connections for calling and music, but the options today are much more plentiful. Products like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow motorists to use nearly all of their mobile’s functions from the driver’s seat, including messaging, music, podcasts, and a variety of applications completely hands-free.
Automatic emergency braking
We’re thankful for some of the features on this list because they’re cool. For others, we’re thankful because they can save our lives. This one happens to be a little bit of both.
Automatic emergency braking uses similar sensors to those found in adaptive cruise control systems, only here they’re used to stop the vehicle autonomously when danger presents itself. It could be a pedestrian jutting into the lane or perhaps the car ahead suddenly slamming on the brakes, but either way, automatic braking can respond quicker and more efficiently than the human brain can. Some systems even bounce radar underneath the car in front to read the vehicle two places ahead, and can warn the driver of impending danger. Cool and safe? We like that.
Active exhaust valves
One of these is not like the others. Active exhaust valves may not be the first things that come to mind when talking about cool car tech, but they’re techie nonetheless, and definitely cool.
When a button is pressed inside the cabin, cars equipped with this function open (or close) special butterfly valves inside the exhaust, unleashing or quelling the full sonic fury of the powerplant on the other side. This is especially helpful on loud cars like the Jaguar F-Type R, which can easily set off car alarms with its throaty V8 soundtrack. Simply hit the switch and the car quiets down to civilian levels … at least until the next straightaway.
Changing behavior on a whim may not be the best trait in humans, but in cars, it’s a sign of maturity. Modern vehicles can stiffen their suspensions, adjust their steering ratios, and even embolden their engine notes depending on what drive mode they’re in, and flipping between them is no more complex than turning on the AC.
Cars can have any number of the following modes — normal, eco, comfort, sport, sport plus, individual, and track — with each offering a different flavor of performance or luxury. Everything from the Toyota Prius to the McLaren 570S has this feature, but they obviously serve very different purposes.
In the Prius, these modes allow the driver to commute on electric power alone or access all of the hybrid’s power if they’re in a rush. In the McLaren, they can firm up the adaptive dampers for better handling or muffle its thunderous exhaust for more subtlety. In any case, driving modes allow the person behind the wheel to tailor their ride’s character electronically, and in some cases, they can turn a supercar into a luxury car.
In 2016, most automakers include a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot in their cars, meaning motorists can stay connected no matter where the road takes them. We can’t recommend using your phone, tablet, or connected refrigerator behind the wheel, but it’s nice to know that the days of pillaging internet from coffee shops and libraries are largely over.
Wi-Fi is expected on high-end vehicles like the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but even affordable cars like the $13,000 Chevrolet Spark offer wireless internet with an OnStar subscription. Better yet, quality aftermarket hotspots can be scooped up for as little as $50, so if you don’t want to unplug, you really don’t have to.
Traffic light prediction
Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly when the traffic light was going to change? If you spend a lot of time in the city, this information could make your commute a whole lot more bearable, and it could even save you money. Believe it or not, there actually is an app for that.
The EnLighten App (Android, iOS) is a free program made by Connected Signals, and it uses data from GPS and local Traffic Management Centers to predict the duration and frequency of traffic lights. With this info on hand, you could safely finish that text or take a much-needed sip of coffee, and you could even time the lights as you go, allowing you to coast and save money on fuel.
EnLighten isn’t available everywhere, but automakers are taking notice. BMW is working to integrate the iOS version of EnLighten into its BMW Apps suite, and Audi introduced a similar system on the 2017 Q7, A4, and A4 Allroad. The systems are a ways away from mainstream adoption, but before you know it, each red light will be like a little vacation.
Voice recognition isn’t the most advanced system on our list, but when used properly, it’s definitely one of the most convenient. This technology can initiate calls, get directions, draft and read texts, play songs, and even search for local points of interest without the driver typing a single word. And when you aren’t looking at your phone, you’re (hopefully) looking at the road, which means you aren’t plowing into the car in front of you.
A good voice control system might just be be your new favorite feature, but a bad one can actually be more distracting because of how much you have to wrestle with it. Thankfully, the options are getting better each year, and with the increased proliferation of natural language processing and apps like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, conversing with your car might actually get you somewhere.
Automatic parking is the answer to an age-old question — why do it when your car can do it for you? The technology started popping up in the United States in the early 2000s, mostly notably in 2006 with the Lexus LS460. With sonar sensors and a rearview camera working in concert, the luxury sedan could parallel park almost completely by itself, with the driver using only the brake to stop once signaled to do so. Lexus had started a trend.
Ever since, manufacturers like Ford, Audi, Jeep, BMW, and more have flirted with autonomous parking systems, and this year Tesla unveiled a Summon feature that allows Model S and Model X drivers to park their vehicles remotely with their key fob. Imagine a future where you pull up to a restaurant, hop out of the driver’s seat, and watch your car autonomously scoot away in search of parking. When you’re done, it zips right back to you like a loyal pet, waiting to take you back home. That future isn’t far away now, and for that, we give thanks.
Welcome lighting might be the best manufacturer-approved way of showing off since the hood ornament. It serves a practical purpose by illuminating the area around the driver’s door at night, but the fact that many automakers use welcome lighting to project their logos means passersby will always know exactly what kind of car you’re driving — even in the dark.
If you’re going to sit in a seat for a long period of time, it had better be comfortable. Luckily, modern car seats can be like armchairs, right down to their ability to massage an occupant. Massaging seats are admittedly a bit decadent, but they’re great for long road trips, or even to make sitting in traffic more relaxing. The only downside is the possibility of getting too relaxed. You still have to pay attention to the road, after all.
Of the many safety technologies now available on modern cars, lane keep assist addresses one of the simplest problems. Keeping a car centered in its lane isn’t that difficult, but drivers still need a little sometimes, particularly on long trips. Lane keep assist systems can use the brakes or steering to keep a car from crossing the line, helping to make the roads a little bit safer.
Whether its carbon fiber, aluminum, or high-strength steel, automakers are putting more lightweight materials into their cars. That’s a good thing, because reducing weight improves everything about a car, from fuel economy, to acceleration, to handling. Weight reduction is also necessary to meet stricter emissions standards and compensate for the bloat brought on by a growing array of tech features. Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s maxim — “simplify, then add lightness” — still holds true.
Electric fast charging
Electric cars are great for the environment and the wallet, but long charging times initially made road trips impractical. Enter DC fast charging, which dramatically reduces charging times compared to conventional AC charging systems. While 240-volt Level 2 AC systems take hours to recharge an electric car, many DC fast-charging stations can recharge a battery pack to 80 percent capacity in around 30 minutes.
DC fast charging still has a long way to go. The stations themselves are relatively expensive and thus less common than AC stations. There are also three competing standards (CHAdeMO, CCS, and Tesla’s Supercharger) which means not every electric car can charge at every station. Regardless, we’re thankful for the progress made so far.