The rapid rate of technological advancement in the past decade or so is nothing short of extraordinary. Cell phones have gone from clamshell offerings that were used for voice calls and awkward three letters per button texting to devices that can do everything from leveling pictures to filming HD movies. A media card the size of your fingernail can store millions of files, and you can check to see if you remembered to close your garage door while flying over the Grand Canyon.
Automotive-based technologies have grown with equal intensity. The word “power” has never before been used as an adjective to the extent that it appears on new vehicle’s window sticker. Features like power steering, power door locks, power moonroof, power-adjustable seats and one-touch power windows are so common that we take them for granted. The rapid growth of technology is a gift for consumers. Expectations rise every year as standard equipment packages that were easily documented in a few sentences now take multiple pages to list.
While some of the new technologies feel like gimmicks, others have stolen my heart. I will be the first to admit that my job as an automotive reviewer has spoiled me. I could live without any of the items on my list, but, with many of these items now found as standard equipment on relatively affordable vehicles, why not splurge? If they make my life easier and add a higher level of safety in the process, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t want to include them on my next car, truck or SUV. Luckily, many used cars also offer today’s top tech features.
Proximity Sensor Key Fobs and Push-Button Start
The first time I sat inside a vehicle with push-button start I actually wondered what to do with the key fob. I was so used to putting a key in the ignition that out of habit I tried to insert the little plastic box into the steering column. As the feature became more commonplace I began to enjoy the convenience of leaving the key in my pocket and simply hopping in the driver’s seat and pushing the start button.
While it may not seem like a big deal, not having to fish through my jeans for a key has become a major help. Being able to approach a vehicle that senses the key fob in my pocket and allows me to unlock the doors with a tiny button located on the door handle or trunk lid is a time-saver and incredible help, especially if I am carrying groceries or camera equipment. Some vehicles automatically unlock the door for you as you approach, adding yet another level of convenience.
If you’re rolling your eyes, I understand. I mean how lazy am I? It’s a key. But drive a dozen cars where you can leave it in your backpack or hand bag and then jump into a vehicle where you need to dig it out and you’ll see why this often inexpensive option or standard feature is tops on my list.
Blind Spot Monitoring
I am fairly certain that every driver has done it. You’re carried away talking with a friend, listening to the radio or focusing on the road ahead. Preparing to change lanes you take a quick look in the rearview mirrors and flip on your blinker only to hear a loud blast from the vehicle in the lane next to you.
How did you miss a 5,000-pound SUV only feet from your driver’s seat? Where did they come from? Turns out they were always there in what is not-so-affectionately known as your vehicle’s blind spot.
Blind spot monitoring or blind spot assist systems are fairly simple, using sensors located on the side or rear of the vehicle to alert the driver if a vehicle is hiding out of view. These blind spots are often located just to the rear of the driver on either side of the car. The system typically lights up a visual display located near the sideview mirror corresponding to the location of the unseen vehicle. Putting on your blinker or attempting to make a move that would cause an accident results in an audible warning and series of flashing light.
There are certainly low-tech options like extra stick-on blind-spot mirrors or bringing along passengers that can help with their own audible warnings. But the system is so helpful, especially in vehicles that are notorious for poor rearward visibility. I would champion the inclusion of blind spot monitoring in every car, truck and SUV. Owners of many newer muscle cars and sports cars in particular would be well-served by the system.
It wasn’t too long ago when the rearview camera arrived on the scene offering a new level of safety and security. Rearview cameras work by projecting the area near the rear bumper of a vehicle onto a screen inside the vehicle, which is typically in the center stack. Not only has the system saved countless abandoned suitcases, but many lives in the process. As of matter of fact, rearview cameras are so helpful that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will require all vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds include them as standard equipment by May 1, 2018. Additionally, a number of vehicles already offer a standard backup camera.
Some manufacturers have taken the idea to the next level offering surround-view systems that use a series of cameras located around the vehicle to stitch together a 360-degree video feed of the cars immediate surroundings. Going beyond the rearview images, the eagle-eye view makes parking so much easier, especially in large SUVs that often feel closer or further away from other vehicles or curbs than they really are. While the cameras may not park the vehicle like other systems do, they provide helpful information to the driver. I enjoy earning the parking hero status that they offer in cramped spaces that should probably be marked “Parking for Motorcycles Only.”
Adaptive Cruise Control
There was an old infomercial that would play during the wee hours of the night when I was kid. The host would whip the crowd into a buying frenzy through some pretty slick marketing that included the seemingly nursery rhyme inspired phrase, “Set it and forget it.”
Vehicles equipped with adaptive or radar cruise control compliantly follow our infomercial hero’s advice. The driver simply has to set the cruise control and forget about it, while a sophisticated radar camera mounted somewhere on the front of the car lets the system accelerate and brake, keeping the vehicle a set distance from the car immediately ahead.
Some adaptive cruise systems only work within certain speed parameters, shutting off when the car falls below a set speed. Others work all the way to a stop before requiring the driver to apply the throttle or reinitiate the system before they move again.
Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up watching too many science fiction movies, but I love the convenience and show-off technology that radar cruise control offers. Long highway trips are less fatiguing, and having an extra set of eyes that are never weary keeping watch goes a long way to ease anxiety and stress. Bumper-to-bumper traffic that never quite stops is a breeze, you set the adaptive cruise parameters to the speed limit and the follow distance to the shortest setting and steer.
I’ll never forget the first time I introduced radar cruise to a couple of friends. We were in a new Hyundai Genesis sedan riding along a lightly trafficked road in North Florida at night. I set the cruise control to 60 mph, the roads speed limit, and let the system do its magic.
The Genesis slowed to about 45 mph as we approached a little slower moving traffic. About a half-mile down the road I spotted a traffic light that had just turned yellow. The car ahead began to slow down to stop at the light and the Hyundai followed along continually keeping that perfect, safe distance. The car just ahead stopped at the light and the Genesis applied the brakes coming to a nice, controlled stop about 15 feet from the car’s rear bumper. Everyone cheered. The technology is that cool and that effective.
I debated on whether or not to even include the lowly USB port on my list. With the more exotic Bluetooth technology allowing phones and audio devices to wirelessly connect to the vehicles infotainment system and wirelessly stream phone calls or audio, USB seems a little archaic. But there are things that Bluetooth simply can’t do, like charge my smartphone. Yes, inexpensive adapters can be had that plug into the vehicle’s charging ports, which old folks like myself still call a cigarette lighter, but the usefulness of a USB port should make them standard equipment on every new vehicle, a practice that manufacturers like Kia have already adopted.
Upping the USB formula, some manufacturers are offering more powerful USB outlets that are capable of charging larger tablets and other USB enabled equipment in shorter times. While many adapter technologies have come and gone, the USB port has only grown in favor. Many devices don’t even provide a way to plug into a standard wall outlet anymore, simply providing a basic USB connector in the packaging.