With Thanksgiving coming up, our thoughts are all turning to holiday meals, family conversations…and the inevitable road trip. While we don’t have any tips on how to deal with loud-mouthed relatives or the inevitable family political argument, we did collect our favorite 10 in-car technological features for your reading pleasure (and preparations for the long drives ahead).
With the exception of texting and driving–which is either illegal in your state, a horrendously bad idea, or both–Bluetooth ensures that there’s almost no good reason to pick up your phone while driving anymore. In-car Bluetooth has evolved over the years from using a microphone and your cars speakers to replicate a phone call, to adding steering wheel buttons and interactive on-screen controls to access speed dial. Almost more importantly, most Bluetooth-enabled cars now offer Bluetooth stereo, which gets rid of AUX cables and ports and wirelessly streams music from any device and any source.
USB Ports that Aren’t Branded Cables
Bluetooth audio doesn’t yet allow drivers to browse their smartphones or devices, so you’ll need to use a trusty USB cable to connect a music player or smartphone to your car for that. Years ago we found it charming that cars could come equipped with, say, an on-board 30-pin Apple connector, but as the iPhone’s 30-pin connector gave way to a new Lightning connector–and many smartphone fans chose Android phones–those quaint connectors turned to annoyances. Your best bet now is a simple USB port, which supports almost anything you can throw at it, including USB flash drives with music files on them.
This one is a bit of a gift and a curse. Ford’s Sync system first wowed us back in 2007 with its ability to index and voice-activate tracks on our iPods or iPhones, or names in our phone books, or destinations for our navigation systems. When voice commands–now cooked into basically every new infotainment system–work, we love them (who wouldn’t love being able to play Duran Duran’s entire discography with a single command?). But when voice commands don’t work, they inspire feelings not of awe but of irrational anger. And no system or brand has completely cracked the code for perfect voice command systems.
In-Dash Media Streaming
Ford’s Sync system is arguably the best one on the market to voice-activate music tracks you own–if it’s a music file on your smartphone or music player, Sync will find it with ease. But in the years since Sync hit the market, many users have given up MP3 and AAC files for streaming services (like Spotify, MOG, or Rdio, which give users access to vast music libraries) or radio services (like Pandora or Stitcher, which offer custom internet radio stations) when they want an aural fix. The solution: programs like Sync’s AppLink (which supports MOG) and BMW/MINI’s ConnectedDrive/iDrive suite (which uses MOG or Pandora), which connect to smartphones and put all of the information/choices on a dashboard screen. Once again, drivers won’t have to pick up their phones to change channels or artists.
Aside from the obvious emotional benefits–it’s hard not to feel a little like a jet fighter pilot when driving a car with a heads-up display–heads-up displays are a great example of technology making driving safer. Instead of looking at physical gauges and center stack-mounted GPS screens, drivers can look straight out the windshield and instantly know information like Bluetooth phone caller ID, GPS directions, and speed/time/temperature. Future iterations (like Audi’s next-generation MMI Touch) will use greater swaths of the windshield and augmented reality to point arrows at the exact street you need to turn onto, or highlight your exact destination.
BMW iDrive (Physical Controls)
By the middle of the last decade, BMW’s iDrive looked like an absolute disaster–it was driving customers away from cars like the 7 Series and frustrating nearly every critic who touched it. Many years (and a few updates) later, iDrive is the veteran system in a world of upstarts (like Cadillac’s CUE), and it shows: where whiz-bang tech features like capacitive touchscreens stutter and falter (and in CUE’s case, smudge with oily fingerprints), iDrive’s physical controller (skinnier and less clunky in its second generation) moves through menus with relative ease. iDrive’s coup de grace over similar systems like Audi’s MMI and Mercedes-Benz’s Comand is its layered menu approach–where a tilt of the controller to the left or right shifts between menus–and its array of shortcut buttons flanking the controller. In comparison, Audi’s MMI makes users rely on soft keys and the back button, and Mercedes-Benz’s Comand forces drivers to push the controller up or down–a clumsier motion to perform while driving.
OnStar (Live Operators/Cloud-based POI Databases)
A restaurant’s name, location, and phone number might only take up a few bytes of data, but there are thousands of restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and auto mechanics in this country, and they’re frequently changing names/places. On-board navigation systems might try their best with Point of Interest databases, storing them on Secure Digital cards and hard drives, but the fact of the matter is this: a 2010 model-year car–and its POI database–isn’t going to know about the new Costco around the corner from you. Furthermore, many POI databases aren’t accurate for businesses with less than a handful of locations. Enter services like OnStar and BlueLink, which connect drivers (and their cars’ Nav systems) to vast online databases that are constantly updated. While we credit services like Google and Bing Maps and Hyundai’s BlueLink system (which are automated), we reserve a special shout-out for OnStar. The service may not be cheap–$28.90 a month, included in some GM leases–but it’s well worth it for its immensely helpful reps and its ability to turn any new GM car into a nav-equipped one, regardless of what’s in your dashboard.
This one is actually pretty obvious–we’re so thankful for the camera, we named it our 2013 Technology of the Year. Why did we do it? Because the camera, more than ever, plays an integral part in making us drive better, smarter, safer…the list goes on. While sensors clearly had their heyday–serving as the backbone for park assist systems, blind spot information systems, automatic cruise control, and forward collision warnings, the camera (and the computers that process those images) should soon supplant the sensor. Cameras can now do all of the aforementioned things, and also provide us with clearer pictures of things like blind spots (see Honda’s LaneWatch) and parking spots (see Nissan’s Around View Monitor and comparable systems), not to mention blind intersections (BMW’s outward-facing front ¾ cameras). The latest talk about cameras is that the rear-view camera may be mandatory in the future. We’re neither surprised nor disappointed.
GPS That Isn’t In-Dash
So you don’t have a fancy LCD infotainment/navigation screen in your car, and you don’t want (or can’t afford) OnStar–what do you do? You’ve got two excellent options: pick up your phone, or stick a portable GPS unit to your windshield. Portable GPS units–once thousands of dollars–now can be had for a couple hundred (for a good model) and have all sorts of new features like traffic reports, Bluetooth connectivity, and databases of speed or red-light cameras/common speed traps. Your phone–depending on how you look at it–is either better or worse. Programs like Google Maps for Android and Apple Maps for iOS do support voice guidance, but Apple’s high-profile Maps meltdown hasn’t done much for its reputation. Other apps like TomTom and Navigon could be a better bet, but they’re considerably more expensive. Either way, they’re more easily updatable/expandable than their in-dash counterparts.
In-Dash Restaurant Recommendations/Reservations
We chose this feature for its usefulness and its wow factor. On one hand, it’s highly useful that drivers can choose a restaurant based on Zagat ratings (Acura, among other brands), Yelp ratings (BMW/Mini), and Google/Bing place pages (Toyota, BMW, Audi, among others), but Toyota might have the coolest feature. Toyota’s Entune system has Bing on-board for search, but also uses OpenTable to allow passengers to book a table at a local restaurant, call it using Bluetooth, or punch it into the navigation system. Some premium manufacturers have had something similar for a while using live operators (Infiniti comes to mind), but OpenTable for Toyota is packaged into the Entune system, which is free for the car’s first three years.