If you trace the history of so-called futuristic car tech over the past 30 years or so, you’ll find some real advances—particularly in safety and performance. Modern-day rigid passenger cages, crumple zones, stability control, and (more recently) direct injection and direct-shift gearboxes have advanced the state of the art. A lot of car tech, though, particularly inside the vehicle, ended up being more flash than substance. But new technologies are putting us back on the track to truly connected, do-it-all automobiles.
Today’s Cars: Where We’re Parked
Talking cars, for example, were all the rage in the early 1980s; think Knight Rider, but on regular cars, and without David Hasselhoff. The Datsun 280ZX and Nissan Maxima told you when you left your lights on; Eddie Murphy made fun of the idea in his stand-up act, and the whole phenomenon faded away. (Nissan phased out the name Datsun around the same time.) The same goes for digital speedometers: Chevy Corvettes and many Fords had them in the 1980s, but enthusiasts decried their inability to show rate of change the way a sweeping needle could. More recently, a few mainstream models like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Prius brought digital instrumentation back, but it’s still far from universal.
Nonetheless, after several decades of cassette tape and CD-based stereo systems and not much else, we’re finally seeing a renaissance in just what should make up the standard controls for a modern-day automobile. It’s only now that we’re beginning to see real advances with staying power, such as iPod and navigation system integration. In fact, we’re already moving past those, from CD and GPS-based systems in center consoles to, well, something. No one is quite sure yet; there’s no one clear standard.
The latest in-car “infotainment” systems seem to do everything. But it’s far from clear how much of everything people want to be able to do inside their cars, or whether it’s safe to do so (at least for the driver). One key trend will be figuring out the line between where it makes more sense for your car to do something instead of your phone. And then there’s the user interface question. Right now, a car’s primary controls—steering, accelerator, and brakes—have been more or less set for decades. Secondary controls, including the lights, horn, stereo, heater, and so on, are ripe for experimentation, which can be a good thing or a bad thing.