I admit it – I’m a geek. Between my passion for cars and a background in Information Technology, I really had no choice. I was doomed from the start. So, naturally, I love to keep up with the latest technology they are shoving into cars these days.
It wasn’t too many years ago that navigation systems and DVD players were the newest gizmos and considered rare luxuries. Now, most people wouldn’t even consider buying a luxury vehicle without navigation or an SUV without a rear entertainment system for fear of reduced resale value. Many auto manufacturers, like Honda, Ford and GM have caught up with the times and offer iPod / MP3 interfaces or onboard MP3 hard drive systems for your listening pleasure. Some luxury brands, like BMW, are upping the sound quality ante with new, digital audio technologies like DVD-Audio and HD digital radio. In just a few more years, CD players in cars will likely be as archaic as tape decks are today.
The techno gadgetry is not limited to entertainment systems, however. A popular feature to emerge in the last couple of years is the reverse parking assist system, available on many large SUVs. The simple version uses ultrasonic technology to determine how close the vehicle is to an object. As you get closer to the object, a warning alarm inside the vehicle becomes louder and more insistent. Some systems also use a series of lights on the dashboard to visually alert the driver. The more advanced version of the parking-assist system utilizes a small camera mounted in a protected area on the rear of the vehicle, usually near the license plate. A wide-angle view of the area immediately behind the vehicle is projected on the display screen of the vehicle’s navigation system. The purpose of the parking assist system is not only to help you maneuver your behemoth SUV out of a parking space, but to keep you from running over small children in the process.
Lexus has taken this technology one step further and offers an automated parking system on its flagship sedan, the LS460. Yes, the car parallel parks itself. Really. The system requires the target parking space to be a minimum of 6.5 feet longer than the car, and it uses a total of 10 sonar sensors to detect the other two vehicles and the gap between. The car’s computer does the math, steers the wheel, applies the brakes and maneuvers the car perfectly into the space. (Don’t believe me? Watch the video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4kBbIOZaGE&feature=related) BMW and Mercedes offer similar systems on their top-of-the-line sedans. The systems are usually packaged with other options and cost an average of $3,000.
Automobile manufacturers have not only developed systems to help you park your car, but to help you drive it as well. Several different manufacturers, from Lexus to Chrysler, offer adaptive cruise control, a system that uses either radar or a laser to keep pace with the vehicle in front of you. Some systems also feature a collision warning and avoidance system, which warns the driver and/or automatically hits the brakes and tightens the seatbelts if there is a high risk of a rear-end collision. These systems typically run at least $2,000. The laser-based system is less expensive, but it is also less reliable in adverse weather conditions and in tracking extremely dirty vehicles.
Some car makers are also helping you drive better in the dark with night vision systems. If you are envisioning yourself driving down a dark, country road wearing military-issue night vision goggles, you are not far off. These systems use the same infrared technology but, thankfully, without the dorky goggles. Infrared sensors mounted on the front of the car use thermal imaging to “see” animals, people and objects in the vehicle’s path before the driver can see them in the headlights. The images are then transmitted onto the vehicle’s navigation screen. The more heat the object gives off, the brighter it appears on the screen. Most systems cover a range of up to 1,000 feet ahead of the car and cost around $2,000. Both BMW and Mercedes offer night vision systems on certain models, but Lexus has dropped this technology for 2008 due to high production costs and low demand.
Thanks to these technology innovations, you can now safely drive backwards, forwards and park your car both during the day and at night. That is, if you have the money to pay for both the pricey vehicles and the extra options. But, as with any technology, these options will no doubt come down in price over time and become available on vehicles the average person can afford. So, what’s next? Autopilot? Flying cars? They may not be as far off as you think.