The other day we talked about bad car technology, the stuff designed to remove you from the experience. Now, let's look at good technology, the stuff designed to make driving better for you, the driver.
We told you we weren't Luddites, but many of you didn't believe us. We readily adopt any new technology that can make driving better for us, but, to us, better doesn't mean easier. Technology shouldn't be a band aid for bad design; a car doesn't need blind spot detectors if it has good vision. What a car needs is improved capability, improved safety and improved experience — all while not hindering any of those other three needs. Here's our idea of progress.
Name: Water-repellent windshield treatments
What it does: What it says on the tin: prevents water from gathering on the windshield.
Extreme Example: Rain-X, rub it on, see in the rain.
Why it's useful: Better vision increases safety.
What it does: sensors detect a crash, triggering explosive charges that rapidly inflate nylon bags. When a vehicle occupant's body collides with the bag, the gas is vented through small holes controlling the rate of deflation and therefore cushioning the impact and controlling the movement of the body.
Extreme Example: The Mercedes ESF 2009 Safety Concept which adds an airbag between rear seat passenger's heads to prevent them knocking and one under the front of the car to rapidly slow it.
Why it's useful: Working together with seat belts and crumple zones, airbags massively reduce the forces a human body is subjected to in a crash. In short, they save your life.
Name: Anti-Lock Brakes
What it does: Prevents the wheels from locking while braking, thereby preserving the ability to steer and reducing stopping distances in slippery conditions.
Extreme Example: The 2009 Honda CBR1000RR ABS brings anti-lock brakes to super bikes, it'll be used in racing next year where racers expect the marginal decrease in outright dry braking ability will be made up for by the increase in consistency and safety.
Why it's useful: Allows you to exploit your car's maximum braking ability while safely retaining the ability to steer. That's a huge benefit in the dry, incredibly more so in the rain or snow.
Name: Defeat-able Traction and Stability Control
What it does: Traction control cuts power when wheel slip is detected, retaining traction under acceleration. Stability control is far more advanced, applying brakes and cutting power to individual wheels to keep the vehicle from spinning or understeering to too great a degree. Defeat-able systems can be turned off.
Extreme Example: In addition to suspension changes, stability control transforms the 2010 Shelby GT500 from a wild beast into a tame kitten.
Why it's useful: The NHTSA estimates that 5,300 to 9,600 fatalities could be prevented per year if all vehicles used stability control. Being able to turn it off enables drivers to take full control of the vehicle, useful in snow, on dirt and on racetracks.
Name: Muffler Valves
What it does: Butterfly or plenum valves located in the muffler or nearby open at certain revs or throttle positions, reducing back pressure and increasing power and noise.
Extreme example: The 2010 Jaguar XKR I'm driving this week is whisper quiet in normal driving, yet roars like a banshee when you get on the throttle. It's glorious and, for now, legal.
Why it's useful: Pesky governments want to restrict our fun by limiting noise levels and emissions. These valves get around those laws by remaining closed in the conditions required to pass the test, then opening in other conditions to deliver the full effect.
Name: Clean Diesel
What it does: a euphemism for Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel and associated engine technologies that drastically reduce the harmful emissions of diesel engines.
Extreme Example: 2009 BMW 335d; imagine getting similar highway fuel economy (36 MPG) to the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Honda Insight in a vehicle that's luxurious, extremely fast and fun to drive.
Why it's useful: By reducing emissions and increasing fuel economy, clean diesel saves the earth while saving you money without asking for sacrifices in the driving experience.
Name: SynchroRev Match
What it does: Matches revs to road speed on downshifts on a manual transmission, essentially mimicking heel and toeing.
Extreme Example: The 2009 Nissan 370Z, the only car to employ the system.
Why it's useful: Heel and toeing is one of the more complicated driving skills to master, but it seriously boosts smoothness, reduces wear on transmissions and decreases the likelihood of spinning while braking hard for a corner. SynchroRev Match not only allows driver who can't heel and toe to reap its benefits, but by performing perfectly matched shifts 100% of the time, it'll be useful to people that can do it themselves too.
Name: iPod/iPhone Integration
What it does: Allows you to fully control your mp3 player using existing controls in your car.
Extreme example: I was able to listen to Pandora through my iPhone on a road trip in the 335d. No more Sirius!
Why it's useful: your car already likely has stereo controls that are simplified and optimized for use while driving, your mp3 player doesn't. The next step is wireless control through bluetooth, meaning you won't even need to connect your mp3 player to wires.
Name: Variable Valve Timing, Event and Lift Systems
What it does: A pretty simple concept with very complicated execution. Essentially, it modifies the movement parameters of the valves to optimize fuel economy, torque and power throughout the rev range.
Extreme Example: The 2009 Nissan 370Z which adds variable valve event and lift to the usual timing, allowing more precise control of its engine's performance.
Why it's useful: It allows smaller engines to act like larger ones with fuller and smoother torque and power curves.
Name: Radar/Laser Detectors
What it does: Detects the presence of speed traps.
Extreme example: Some current systems are able to detect radar, laser and can be programmed with the positions of known cameras or other fixed-location devices.
Why it's useful: Since our government chooses to enforce speed over safety, detectors allow good drivers to use their judgement to drive as they see fit without incurring the wrath of an arrogant bureaucracy.
Name: Heated Seats
What it does: Makes your butt warm.
Extreme Example: The seats on my E30 325is got so hot they could burn you.
Why it's useful: No one likes cold butts.
Name: Advanced lightweight materials and construction methods
What it does: reduces weight and increases strength of car chassis and bodies.
Extreme Example: The Lotus Elise which uses an extruded and bonded aluminum chassis (pictured) for unprecedented light weight and high strength.
Why it's useful: Less weight equals improved performance and fuel economy while increased strength is safer and a better platform to attach suspension to.
Name: Crumple Zones
What it does: allows the front and rear portions of the chassis and body to collapse in a controlled manner, reducing the forces vehicle occupants are subjected to in a crash.
Extreme Example: The 2010 Jaguar XK, which uses crimps in its incredibly strong aluminum chassis to control its distortion to an incredibly high degree. A very strong passenger compartment equipped with well engineered crumple zones makes cars like this extraordinarily safe.
Why it's useful: The human body was never designed to travel above about 20 MPH or, more accurately, wasn't designed to withstand the forces involved with stopping rapidly from above 20 MPH. Crumple zones save lives.
Name: Stop/Start Engines
What it does: Turns the engine off while stopped in traffic or at traffic lights. Engine restart is immediate and unnoticeable.
Extreme Example: The BMW 118i, which isn't a hybrid, yet can turn its engine off while stopped to save gas.
Why it's useful: You don't need to have your engine on while you're stopped, so it makes sense to turn it off. Saves gas and reduced emissions.
Name: Satellite Weather and Traffic Reports
What it does: Shows traffic info and weather radar maps and forecasts on the in-car screen.
Extreme Example: The 2010 Acura MDX, which uses the XM radio signal to download live traffic reports, weather forecasts and most usefully of all, doppler radar maps.
Why it's useful: We're not big fans of simulated female voices giving us bad directions, that's what we have girlfriends for. But, being able to adjust your route based on weather and traffic can increase safety and reduce travel times.
Name: Pushbutton Locking Differentials
What it does: locking differentials lock the two wheels on an axle together so they rotate at the same speed. Pushbutton systems achieve this at the push of a button.
Extreme Example: The Hummer H3T Alpha, which uses the system to make extreme off-roading easy.
Why it's useful: you used to have to get out of the car and manual set the locks, then rock the vehicle back and forth to get them to engage. Now you can do all that by pushing a button.
What it does: exhaust gases spin an impeller that forces air into the combustion chamber at high pressures. This increases power.
Extreme Example: The 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six which has the power and torque of a much larger engine, but without the traditional turbo lag or peaky delivery.
Why it's useful: Makes little engines act like bigger ones by increasing power and torque.
Name: LED Lights
What it does: Light-Emitting Diodes use much less energy and last much longer than traditional bulbs.
Extreme Example: The 2010 Audi R8 5.2 FSI which only uses LED bulbs.
Why it's useful: Well, for one thing, you'll never have to replace a bulb again. It also allows designers greater freedom to create new light shapes and locations.
Name: Torque Vectoring Differentials
What it does: Know how stability control keeps a vehicle from spinning by cutting power and applying brakes to individual wheels? Well torque vectoring differentials are essentially really awesome stability control units that send power to individual wheels to increase, rather than reduce, speed.
Extreme Example: The BMW X6 M. Enter a wet hairpin, plant the throttle and it will accelerate in complete control the whole way around.
Why it's useful: increases the outright cornering ability of a vehicle in a way that defies not only belief, but nearly the laws of physics.
Name: Direct Fuel Injection:
What it does: injects fuel directly into the cylinder and enables the precise control of the fuel-air mixture which, in turn, means a leaner burn, increased fuel economy and higher power.
Extreme Example: The Ford Bobcat engine which uses a secondary set of injectors to shoot ethanol from a separate tank into the combustion chamber, compression ratios can be drastically raised without pre-ignition, thus boosting fuel economy another 10 percent and overall power output quite a bit - think 500 HP and 700 lb-ft of torque from a five-liter V8.
Why it's useful: Better efficiency, higher compression ratios, more power. What's not to like?
Name: Real Power Outlets
What it does: Provides passengers with an actual 110v power outlet like they get at home instead of the crappy cigarette lighter ports.
Extreme Example: the 2009 Ford Flex has an honest-to-god outlet between the two front seats.
Why it's useful: you can plug shit in without using an adapter. That's crazy talk.
Name: Folding Hard Tops
What it does: substitutes metal for cloth in a convertible's top.
Extreme Example: The 2009 BMW Z4, which has coupe-like vision and refinement yet looses its top into a very small space in the trunk, eliminating the huge butts and bad vision of previous folding hard tops.
Why it's useful: Delivers the best of both worlds in one package. Coupe security, sound levels and vision; convertible looks and the wind in your hair.
Name: Hood Scoops
What it does: draws air into the engine bay or engine for the purposes of cooling or increased power.
Extreme Example: The Rover 3500 which had three functional hood scoops; one for the air cleaner and two that were somehow connected to the HVAC system.
Why it's useful: They make the best use of the environment a vehicle operates in to increase performance. Also increase a vehicle's bad ass quotient.
Name: Adaptive Headlights
What it does: "Steers" the headlight beams around corners.
Extreme Example: The Citroen DS, which employed a complicated steering-linked system way back in 1967.
Why it's useful: Enables you to see around corners, increasing safety.
Name: Regenerative Braking
What it does: Recoups a vehicle's kinetic energy under deceleration.
Extreme Example: The 2008 BMW M3, which employs a regenerative braking system that enables a smaller alternator and increased fuel efficiency.
Why it's useful: The kinetic energy is there, why not use it? Improves fuel efficiency.