As if further proof were needed, this past year has shown that electronic technology is staking an ever-increasing claim to the car. Clearly our cultural obsession with gadgets doesn't end when we get behind the wheel. Of course, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others ardently wish that people would just hang up and drive. But that's not likely to happen.
History proves you can't put the tech genie back in the bottle. But smart people can harness technology to make driving safer. Nearly half the technologies listed here are ones that allow drivers to more easily and safely use portable devices. Others make cars more convenient, safe, fuel-efficient and "intelligent." In fact, some cars are so smart that they don't even need drivers.
Audi MMI Touch
Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) is already one of the better knob-centric solutions for navigating through the thicket of electronic features found in most luxury cars. With the introduction of its 2011 Audi A8, Audi has improved the interface with the first automotive application of a touchpad, called MMI Touch. The feature allows drivers to trace characters with a finger to access navigation destinations or find contacts in a connected Bluetooth phone. This method may be quicker than entering the info by finding letters and numbers one character at a time, but it's also accompanied by voice activation — just in case Audi drivers don't want to let their fingers do the talking.
BMW iPod Out
It might not seem like a big deal that BMW has used the little-known spec of Apple's iOS4 software called iPod Out to send the iPod's graphic user interface (GUI) to a car's in-dash display. And from a technology standpoint, it isn't. But it is a momentous step for an automaker that prides itself on in-house innovation to cede the GUI to a second party. It's also a sign of what might be to come. The immediate payoff is that the BMW interface is always as current as the software on the iPod, offloading that troublesome task to the device and its owner instead of the vehicle and its maker. BMW has said that iPod Out is just the first step in using off-board Apple interfaces to integrate its popular portable products into BMW's vehicles.
Chevrolet Volt OnStar MyLink App
Along with many other automakers, GM went app-happy in 2010, introducing smartphone apps through OnStar for its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC divisions. In all cases, drivers can connect with the car to remotely control such functions as locking and unlocking doors, locating it in a crowded parking lot by flashing the lights and sounding the horn, and even starting the engine. But for its all-important Volt plug-in hybrid, GM added the OnStar MyLink app, which gives owners the ability to check charging status, battery charge level and other information essential for the range-anxiety crowd.
Google's Self-Driving Cars
Though we may not see this experiment come to fruition for years, perhaps one of the most significant automotive technology breakthroughs this year has been Google's revelation that the company's self-driving cars have logged 140,000 miles on California roads with only one accident. And that was when one of the driverless vehicles was rear-ended by a dumb human. The same group at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) that is involved with Google's self-driving cars also helped develop the Audi TTS that drove up Pikes Peak on its own. While autonomous cars roaming the roads might sound like science fiction, Google has demonstrated that the future has arrived.
Hyundai Equus iPad
Call it a marketing gimmick, but Hyundai's decision to include an Apple iPad with the purchase of every new 2011 Equus got lots of pundits and everyday people talking about the car. (And just imagine all the luxury car brand marketing managers who are kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.) While the iPad ostensibly will be used in place of a paper owner's manual, the unique promotion further set Hyundai apart as a company that makes really smart moves — as well as really good cars.
Infiniti Eco Pedal
For years, lead-footed drivers have been pushing the pedal to the metal — some knowingly and others unknowingly. This year Infiniti introduced a pedal that pushes back to let drivers know that they're wasting precious fuel. While it takes some getting used to — and, thank goodness, can be turned off — the Eco Pedal feature is the first active fuel-efficiency technology to make it onto a passenger car. That's not counting the speed limiters found on rental cars, of course.
Kia first announced its UVO — short for Your Voice — in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, and it's taken nearly a year for it to show up in Kia's cars. But at least another automaker has stepped up with a system to compete with Ford Sync. Even if UVO is a me-too version that was developed by the same Microsoft division that delivered Sync, its appearance further signals that innovative electronic features are quickly spreading to all car segments — and not just trickling down from the luxury car, as in the past.
Mini Connected also uses iPod Out, but takes it a step further — and perhaps tips BMW's hand for future upgrades. Mini Connected uses the connectivity capabilities of Apple's iPhone to bring Web-enabled infotainment into the Mini. By hooking up to an iPhone, Mini Connected offers such features as Internet radio, audible Facebook and Twitter updates and, in whimsical Mini fashion, automatic culling of iPhone music playlists to suit an owner's motoring mood.
For the next generation of Sync, Ford had a tough act to follow. The successful Sync system had already raised the bar on portable-device integration and brought cloud-based services from the Internet into the car via a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone. Owners can also easily upgrade the system through software updates and control it via voice commands, and it's available at an affordable price. MyFord Touch and the companion MyLincoln Touch add color, configurable dual screens in the instrument panel and a larger screen in the dash, not to mention new steering-wheel switches and other hardware. These are bold innovations, a step in the right direction for making an increasing amount of electronic information less distracting and more digestible.
Volvo Pedestrian Detection With Full Auto Brake
Volvo has always made safety a staple of its brand — and of its successful marketing strategy. The company again led the way this year with Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake, which debuted on the all-new 2011 Volvo S60. The feature uses radar and a camera to scope out pedestrians in front of the vehicle and to automatically bring the car to a halt to prevent a collision. This follows the company's innovative City Safety system that employs similar technology to avoid low-speed fender-benders. Both prove that Volvo is still the leading active-safety automaker.
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