But, don’t forget that this technology necessitates a miniature mountain of computer power and wiring, every piece adding weight, size and bulk to modern automobiles. As cars get increasingly complex they become more like consumer electronics, with built-in lifecycles. Needless to say, make sure you know what you’re getting.
Modern car tech is amazing: it lets you see in the dark, and see around blind corners, and stop you from crashing into things.
Automatic parallel parking
Infrared night vision
Thermographic night vision
Heads-up holographic display
Automatic emergency braking
Cars that see around corners
Some of you may already be aware of this technology, but for people just getting into the new car market for the first time in five or 10 years, this is pretty amazing stuff. Parallel parking is the absolute worst part of driving a car in the city (except for the traffic and smog and construction and delivery vans). But, automakers have found a way to make it easy. Drivers generally just have to push a button, let the car drive along a line of parked cars until it “sees” a spot, then watch as the steering wheel moves all by itself to reverse the car into the space. The systems work well, but they can still be a little slow.
This is sci-fi stuff. The “active” type of night vision system used by Mercedes-Benz and Toyota/Lexus emits infrared light that’s picked up by a special camera. A computer then translates the infrared image into a picture human eyes can see. These systems provide a range of around 150-250 metres, but they don’t function very well in rain or fog.
An alternate system for low-light visibility. Used by BMW, Audi and GM, these systems operate using a thermoggraphic camera that can detect thermal radiation emitted by objects. It offers great range of up to 300 metres, and can easily detect living objects like people and animals. It works in rain and fog, but not so well in very hot conditions. Cadillac was the first brand to introduce such a system in 2000 with the Deville. BMW followed suit in 2005 with the 7 Series, and Audi in 2010 with the A8.
Since 2007, Ford has been touting the Ford Sync system which enables drivers to control music, navigation and telephone calls and other functions by speaking to the car. But, the system is pretty clunky and sometimes downright annoying – especially when you’re learning. Compared to Apple’s Siri voice recognition system in the new iPhone 4S, Ford and other automakers have a lot of room for improvement. Siri allows operators to speak naturally to the phone and receive fairly accurate answers. The Detroit Free Press recently reported that this next-gen voice control will be coming to cars soon.
Driving when you are extremely tired is incredibly dangerous. Most people don’t realize just how poor their reaction times and cognitive functions are when they are sleepy. Mercedes-Benz cited peer-reviewed scientific studies that show 25 percent of all serious highway crashes are caused by driver drowsiness. The Mercedes “Attention Assist” system creates a profile of a driver’s driving behaviour at the beginning of a journey, and when that behaviour starts to get more sporadic the car warns that it may be time for a break. Other auto makers use similar systems.
Ever fantasized about being a fighter pilot? Is Top Gun your favourite movie? Well, the latest heads-up display systems in cars project important information right on to the windshield. That means drivers don’t have to look down and can keep their eyes focused on the road. Depending on the manufacturer, the heads-up displays can show speed, various warnings, cruise control settings and/or navigation instructions. The next generations of this technology is coming soon, and it promises higher-resolution and colour displays.
There’s so much high technology in automobiles these days, controlling all of it intuitively is a huge issue. Drivers don’t want to learn to dig through 15 different sub-menus, but increasingly that’s what’s happening. All automakers have somewhat different solutions. Audi’s is the trackpad, similar to what you would find on your laptop. It lets you control the info screen, but it will also recognize gestures. For example, if you want to select a contact to make a phone call, you can simply start writing the letters of the contact’s name on the trackpad. In the future, expect your car to become ever more like your cellphone and computer.
Distracted driving is still a huge problem, despite attempts to regulate the use of cellphones and other devices. With all this technology in cars, drivers have more reason than ever to take their eyes off the road. All it takes is a split-second of distraction to miss a car stopping in front of you. Emergency braking systems monitor distance and speed between you and the car in front. The system will warm with lights and sounds if it detects danger, but if the driver still doesn’t do anything, the car can apply the maximum braking force by itself.
Several German automakers are using multiple vehicle mounted cameras that effectively let drivers see around corners. The nose of a car is far ahead of the driver, making it dangerous to pull ahead to see if the turn is clear. Using multiple cameras, the car can piece together a 360-degree view showing everything around the vehicle – even in places where drivers otherwise couldn’t see. This is particularly useful when reversing out of a parking space or attaching trailers, for example.
Yes, headlights now swivel and look into corners as you turn. But now several automakers have systems that can detect oncoming vehicles and make sure your high-beams aren’t dazzling oncoming traffic. Volkswagen uses a camera on the mirror to monitor oncoming vehicles. Above 60 km/h, the car will switch on the lights if it’s dark enough and automatically lower the beam of light when it detects an oncoming car.