You won't believe what some cars can do
Volkswagen’s Automatic Post-Collision Braking System
Automatic high-beam headlights
Automatic brake drying
Volvo inflatable child seat
Tesla’s ignition switch
Ford’s trailer tow minder
Lane departure systems
- Anti-Lock Brakes
- Airless tires
- Crumple zones
- Automatic brake...
- Fuel cells
- Fiat MultiAir
- “Smart” alternators
- Subaru’s EyeSight
- Night vision
- Volvo inflatable...
- Ford MyKey
- Tesla’s ignition...
- Ford’s trailer...
- Self-parking cars
- Nissan Easy-Fill
- Lane departure...
Whether you love technology, hate it, or are slowly learning to live with it, you have to admit that some of it is pretty darn cool. Hard to believe, but some of today’s cars have more computing power than the rockets that went to the moon! Here are some that we find the most fascinating, both old and new.
Many collisions are just the start of more problems. Drivers who are injured or shocked by the crash may not hit the brakes, and the vehicle will continue to roll forward, hitting other vehicles, objects, or pedestrians. Volkswagen’s new system, found on the 2015 Golf, hits the brakes as soon as it detects a crash, preventing the car from moving and doing more damage.
Blinding other drivers is a thing of the past with this set-’em-and-forget-’em system. A sensor detects other vehicles and turns down the high-beam headlights, and then turns them on again once traffic has passed. But while it sounds futuristic, it’s actually a lot older than you might think. Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduced a similar system, called the Autronic Eye, back in 1952.
Never mind common—ABS is now a mandatory safety feature on new vehicles. But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that it’s a fascinating technology, and more importantly, it’s the building block for all kinds of other systems, including stability control, traction control, and even some of the components in self-driving cars. It’s actually very old, developed in 1929 for airplanes. It was difficult to adapt it to cars, though, and the modern electronic, multi-channel, four-wheel ABS system didn’t appear until 1978, introduced by Mercedes-Benz.
Imagine never having a flat tire, or having to check the air pressure! These tires are just concepts right now, but such models as Bridgestone’s AirFreeConcept and Michelin’s Tweel could one day make it to market.
It seems like such a simple idea, but crumple zones have proven to be one of the most important safety innovations. They were developed by Béla Barényi, an engineer at Mercedes-Benz, who realized that rigid car bodies transferred deadly crash energy to the occupants. His design used flexibly-joined “cells” at the front and rear that progressively deformed in a crash around a rigid passenger compartment to absorb the energy before it reached the people inside. It was first used on the 1959 Mercedes-Benz W 220.
Brakes work by friction, which means they aren’t as effective when they’re wet. When the automatic brake drying system detects moisture, it periodically applies the brake pads, which squeegees off the water. It’s a light enough touch that the driver doesn’t feel it, and the vehicle doesn’t slow down, but it’s enough to maintain that waterless level of safety.
How neat is a car that makes its own electricity? Fuel-cell vehicles (FCV) are actually electric cars, but they don’t need to be plugged in. Instead, they use a membrane with on-board hydrogen on one side, and oxygen from ambient air on the other. As protons exchange between the two, it creates electricity, which is used by the electric motor or stored in a battery. FCVs are still in limited use, though, mostly due to a lack of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.
No doubt you know how engines work: fuel gets in and exhaust gets out through intake and exhaust valves. These open and close when they’re activated by the lobes on the camshaft. MultiAir, used on the intake valves, operates the valves by using pressurized engine oil that’s controlled by electronic solenoids. Got all that? Well, even if you don’t know how engines work, here’s why this technology should appeal to you: because it optimizes air and fuel delivery through variable valve lift, Fiat estimates it reduces fuel consumption and emissions by up to 10 per cent, with better low-end power.
Alternators are essential for creating electricity to run a vehicle, but they run off the engine, which steals a bit of fuel economy. “Smart” alternator systems monitor the battery and other electricity usage, and determine the best time to charge it. The alternator lowers its output during acceleration, so the engine can use more of its power for propulsion, and then raises output during deceleration. It may only be a small fuel savings, but accompanying it with other technologies, it can produce larger benefits.
Forward-vision systems are becoming more common on many vehicles—used to initiate such features as pedestrian detection or lane-keeping—but Subaru’s uses an unusual stereo camera. The two cameras capture images and turn them into electrical pulses, which a computer then uses to identify objects. By comparing the left and right images, the system can accurately determine how far away an object is, and whether it presents an issue for the driver.
Still in the research stage, but rapidly progressing toward marketability, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication involves cars that “talk” to each other. Such scenarios could include cars “telling” each other when they’re approaching blind curves or difficult intersections to avoid collisions; emergency vehicles warning other cars when they’re approaching from behind; or chain-style communication, where cars warn others behind them, and those in turn warn others behind them, if there’s a collision or dangerous situation ahead.
Headlights are always getting better—you can get LED ones now—but they can only see so far. Night vision uses infrared light or thermal imaging, depending on the manufacturer, to pinpoint people, animals, road signs, or other obstacles, and display them on a screen to the driver. You have to admit it’s impressive when your car sees better in the dark than you do.
While just a concept right now, Volvo’s inflatable seat has the potential to make parents’ lives much easier. The seat weighs half as much as a conventional child seat, fits into a bag, inflates in less than 40 seconds with an integrated pump, is easy to install, and coolest of all, it’s Bluetooth-enabled, which gives it such features as remote-controlled inflation.
Handing your car over to someone else to drive—say, a teenager who might not always obey the rules? MyKey lets you program a specific key, which you give to that driver. When he or she starts the car, it triggers everything you programmed into it. It can limit the audio system volume, block phone calls and text messages on a paired phone, chime when the driver reaches a specified speed, and govern how fast the car can go. It also warns extra-early when the gas gauge is getting low, although, unfortunately, Ford hasn’t yet found a way to make one’s teen actually fill the car up.
Push a starter button, or even more last-century, insert and turn a key? Not for the all-electric Tesla, which uses a weight sensor located in the driver’s seat. Providing the key’s in your pocket, all you have to do is sit down, and the Tesla springs to life. Just try to say that butt-starting a car isn’t cool.
It’s important to maintain your truck, but it’s equally important to maintain your trailer. The problem is that people usually forget how many kilometres their trailers have travelled since the last service. Ford has an instrument cluster screen where drivers can enter up to ten different trailers, and then keep track of each one’s accumulated mileage, and the trailer brake gain it requires.
Yes, we believe you should learn how to park your own car. And we also believe that a good driver can do it faster than this application can. But we still appreciate the sheer amount of programming and technology that goes into a car that can find an empty spot, figure out if it will fit, and then steer itself in.
Tire pressure gauges are notoriously inaccurate, especially the cheaper ones. Ditto the air pump at the gas station. So we have to appreciate the person who figured out that a tire pressure monitoring system can be used for air going in, as well as air leaking out. Hook the air hose up to your tire, pump the air in, and the car will honk its horn when you’re at the proper pressure. Simple to operate, useful, and fascinating: that’s what cool technology is all about.
Many cars will warn you when you’re drifting out of your lane, but a few will now actually guide you back over the line, either by braking the wheels on one side, or by steering the car over. What’s fascinating about the technology is its complexity: the vehicle has to recognize the line, realize its position in relation to it, and then activate other systems to bring it back.