Cars do not typically come to mind when considering the many ways that modern technology has shaped the world around us. Since smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and other home-based devices have rapidly evolved in the past decade (or less), it is easy to think of cars as a “last bastion” of the pre-smartphone world. The average age of an automobile on U.S. roads is about 11 years old now (and growing), so it is perfectly understandable to have missed the boat on what is going into newer rides.
Once thought to be a fool’s errand, the rise of high-tech systems in automobiles has provided new car owners with more and more ways to save fuel, get directions, connect to the Internet, enjoy entertainment, and, most importantly, stay safe. Manufacturers from Ford to Audi and just about everyone in between have put in a concerted effort to translate cars’ relevance to 21st century lifestyles.
So with that in mind, here are just a few of the latest vehicular advancements that have the potential to collectively change the way we interact with our automobiles. Buckle up.
Telematics is essentially a fancy sounding, general term to describe the intertwining of telecommunication and infotainment technology in vehicles. These kinds of devices are currently most recognized through services like OnStar or GPS, but those building blocks have been greatly expounded upon over the last few years, creating systems that go hand-in-hand with actually driving a vehicle.
Take, for example, something like Cadillac’s CUE (or “Cadillac User Experience”). As seen in the company’s XTS and ATS models, as well as its SRX crossover, CUE is a hardware and software stack, which looks to manage each and every way a driver can interact with his or her car. It is undoubtedly influenced by the smartphone revolution of the past half-decade, with its 8-inch capacitive touchscreen centerpiece, four customizable layouts, voice command functionality, and variety of apps.
Up to ten smartphones, MP3 players, and other devices can be paired with CUE via its hidden storage with USB ports. The touchscreen provides what is called “haptic feedback” — meaning that the car will make a small pulse to ensure users know they are actually pressing something. CUE also features proximity sensing, meaning it will know when the user’s finger is approaching the touchscreen and will prepare accordingly. It features a customizable favorites screen, which houses preferred apps in a location of the driver’s choice, for easier access.
Beyond all those bells and whistles, this kind of telematics system lets drivers call out songs to be played on the radio, obtains detailed GPS routes with Doppler radar-style weather map overlays, and synchronizes phone contacts for future voice-dialed phone calls and voice-to-text SMS messages. Devices like CUE can certainly take a little while to get used to — and they will often come at a notable price — but once that comfort level is achieved, they provide drivers with an ever-impressive luxury experience.
Connectivity and Apps
Along those same lines are the progressively bountiful ways in which vehicles connect to the Internet and Internet-connected devices. Services like Chrysler Uconnect Access in the 2013 Ram 1500 can turn a pickup truck into a mobile office through a built-in wireless hotspot access, free Wi-Fi capability, and Bing search functionality. All of this, while also providing safety and convenience features like one-button emergency assistance and a compatible smartphone app that lets users unlock car doors at the tap of a touchscreen.
BMW’s ConnectedDrive 2012 not only sports a solid suite of infotainment and navigation services — including an “iDrive Touch” function that lets users write words with their fingers on the vehicle’s touchscreen and have them translated into actual text — but is also making waves for implementing an LTE hotspot directly into its future 3,5,7, and M-series models. This means that speedy, mobile Internet can be had at any time in the car on any device with internet connectivity.
Vehicle-related Internet features do not have to end once the car’s engine is shut off, though, a point which Ford’s MyFord Mobile iOS app proves quite effectively. Arriving alongside the Ford Focus EV, the MFM app lets users view the remaining charge of their electric car’s battery, see where nearby charge stations are located, and plan trips on their phone that can be sent straight to the car’s navigation system for later use, among other options.
Other mobile apps, like Hyundai’s BlueLink, OnStar’s MyLink, and Mercedes-Benz’s mbrace are similarly useful, working with telematics systems to remotely flash car lights, honk horns, and locate vehicles on an overhead map, and more.
Convenience and Entertainment
Telematics systems should first and foremost focus on driver safety and ease of use. Devices or applications that are have a better chance of distracting drivers typically get put on the backburner, or are met with an overall negative response. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped a multitude of car companies from finding ways to keep customers relaxed and stimulated while they are out on the road.
A good example of this may be found in the Honda HondaLink system, which will launch with the 2013 Honda Accord and will connect users to a cloud database of information, news, social media, and entertainment on the go. Honda partnered up with Harman to bring the streaming web entertainment service, Aha, to HondaLink, allowing drivers to access personalized radio stations and other on-demand web content, while on the road.
HondaLink follows in the footsteps of other integrated multimedia systems like Toyota Entune and Ford’s Sync AppLink, which are particularly notable for being primarily voice-commanded in-car apps. Each of these offer a multitude of stations, services, and programs — Sync AppLink even featured live, streaming news through a partnership with NPR — that can be browsed without the driver’s hands to leaving the wheel.
Safety has traditionally been a main concern for both drivers and automobile companies alike, so it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that numerous car and app manufacturers have dedicated untold hours to developing systems that will help decrease risk on the road.
Perhaps the most significant recent advancement in driver safety comes from not just a collective of car makers, but from the United States government too. Both auto companies and the government have been in talks to begin implementing Dedicated Short Range Communications (or DSRC) into future car models, a move that could fundamentally alter driver safety for the better.
DSRC are basically two-way, short-to-medium range wireless communication channels that were created specifically for automobiles. This would essentially allow cars to communicate with each other; exchanging data about other vehicles, traffic signals, and the surrounding environment through nearby hotspots and other cars enabled with DSRC.
One can imagine the possibilities here. If a majority of cars were loaded with DSRC tech, then theoretically they could all “speak” with each other, using embedded computing systems to tell drivers how close they are to nearby hazards. The hope is that this would most help drivers avoid accidents more efficiently than ever.
It has also been suggested that DSRC could notify drivers of how long they have before a traffic light changes colors and what speed they’d have to drive in order to make it through a nearby green light. This improved awareness and knowledge could lead to a much safer driving environment, not to mention one with less of a damaging impact on the environment.
While we wait for this future of theoretical talking cars to arrive, there are still a great many innovations being added to today’s cars to keep us all a little bit safer. Honda’s LaneWatch tech, for example, adds a small camera on the passenger side window, and then transmits its feed onto an in-car display in order to give drivers a much-improved view of their surroundings. Audi’s R8 e-Tron electric car will soon feature similar tech, only it will replace the rear-view mirror entirely, adding a high-contrast AMOLED display that picks up video from the car’s rear-facing camera instead.
For all of the non-drivers out there, it’s worth noting that General Motors is in the process of developing a wireless, sensor-based “Pedestrian Detection” system that will utilize Wi-Fi Direct connections to locate nearby pedestrians if a possible collision is imminent. All in all, it would appear that the present and future of automobile technology is a bright one, whether or not you’re behind the wheel, next to it, or completely outside of it.