It’s sometimes amazing how much technology is available in new cars, and how that technology makes our lives easier on the road. Last night, I drove home in a new Nissan Altima Hybrid, and without much effort on my part, I put its features to use.
First, I paired my phone with the car’s Bluetooth system. In less than a minute, I was set to receive or make calls automatically without touching the phone itself. My phone didn’t ring during the relatively short trip, but if it had, I could have just touched a small button on the steering wheel and been connected to the caller via a microphone above and the speakers of the stereo.
I was also able to use the car’s navigation screen to see how the traffic was behaving on the freeway, thanks to traffic information that comes through the XM satellite radio band. This, like the Bluetooth, is something that’s becoming more commonplace in cars, and not just the more expensive models.
If you do want the latest in-car gadgets, you generally do have to step up to a luxury model, at least until they work their way down to more mainstream cars. So far this year, several different innovative systems have been introduced into updated or new cars, each one offering some kind of improvement over a previous system.
Audi offered me a few days in the updated S5 coupe, a high-performance luxury car that was the first to get the latest version of Audi’s Multi-Media Interface, or MMI for short. While some have complained about the complexity of this and other systems from German car companies (BMW’s I-Drive and Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND, which work in a similar manner), engineers have been working to make them more user-friendly and less complicated.
With the new MMI, also available on the recently-introduced Q5 sport utility vehicle, a driver can ask the navigation system to locate particular services. If the fuel gauge is heading toward empty, you simply say “I need gas” after pressing a button. Within a few seconds, the navigation screen will display a list of gas stations and how far away they are.
You can also make verbal requests for food, coffee or ATMs the same way. While this might not be especially helpful in your local neighborhood, traveling to other places you’re not as familiar with could be a lot easier. No more wandering around searching for something, as the car will become a local tour guide.
Lexus is furthering the user-friendliness of their navigation system with something called Remote Touch. Now available on the new RX 350 and RX 450h, this system is designed to make the interface of your hand and the controls more natural. Instead of turning a knob or using your finger on a stubby joystick, you simply rest your right palm on a curved mouse-like control located on the center console. Your thumb taps an “enter” button on the side, and there are other buttons for lesser-used functions that are pushed by your fingers.
So the controls are ergonomically friendly, which makes them more comfortable. But there’s also another cool feature. As you scroll over the symbols on the display screen (audio, climate, navigation, etc.) the pad under your palm provides positive feedback to let you feel your way around the different functions. Much like some video games, the feedback allows you to look more toward the road instead of the screen, feeling when you’ve got the curser over the right icon.
Sure, these new gadgets are only on luxury vehicles right now, but with demand for technology coming from drivers in all price ranges, it probably won’t be long before they’re offered on more affordable models. The Audi system could work its way down to cars from sibling brand Volkswagen, and Lexus’ Remote Touch could potentially be integrated into Toyota models like the Camry at some point.
There are new devices that can be added to existing vehicles, and not in a slapped-on-the-dashboard kind of way. AT&T partnered up with a company called RaySat and has introduced an in-car satellite television service called CruiseCast. It’s designed to be added to an existing rear seat entertainment system, the kind many SUVs and minivans have that play DVDs (or in older models, VHS tapes).
The converter module hides in a console or under a seat and works with a remote control, much the same way you add a satellite or cable receiver to the television set in your house. There’s a small dish that mounts to the roof or a luggage rack (and it really is small – about the size of a bicycle helmet), and the installed set-up lets you receive 40 channels of video and music entertainment.
CruiseCast isn’t cheap at $1299, plus installation, plus monthly subscription fees. But if you’re looking to update the family ride, or you’re tired of hearing your kids play the same DVDs over and over again, it could be money well spent.
Some folks don’t care for new technology and find that it overwhelms their senses. But others love to have the latest gadgets and find that they make driving easier and less stressful. Good news for both camps: the technologies are here, but they’re optional.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.