Driving the high-tech highway: What's new in a new car?
The steering wheel spins rapidly over to the right, all by itself, as the vehicle slowly backs into the parking space. It then starts cutting back to the left, perfectly judging the distance between our right front corner and the car parked in front of us, as we ease back in.
A turn to the right, a little bit of forward motion and we're neatly parked — as the checkered flag on the dashboard triumphantly announces.
Is this a Mercedes-Benz? A Lexus? A Tesla, maybe?
No, this is a Ford pickup truck.
Welcome to the new world of automotive technology. Depending on how you use your car, self-parking is either a neat party trick or a godsend. But its appearance on a workaday vehicle serves to show the widespread adoption of some sophisticated features that were available only in premium brands, if at all, just a few years ago.
If you haven't been on a dealer's lot since stability control systems and tire pressure monitors were the big news — something that's fairly likely, since the average age of a car on the road in Massachusetts and Vermont is just under 10 years — you might be surprised by what you'll find today. Cars might not yet be self-driving, but it's clear that we're in the midst of a technological revolution that could profoundly change the experience behind the wheel.
Much of this technology lurks in the background, making its presence known only when needed. Though many new cars are now capable of stepping in to take control of accelerating, braking and even steering in certain situations, manufacturers are careful to point out that they are not capable of self-driving. Rather, these features are offered as aids to better driving, to mitigate or prevent an accident for a driver who has made an error in judgment.
"You can still turn on and off the wipers on your own, you can still turn on and off the high beams on your own, and you can start and brake the car, and it might never do anything other than what you tell it to do," said Peter Wirth, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, Mass. "Unless you're about to hit something, and then you probably would want it to do something. ... Very few people will ever experience the car braking itself."
"Technology that is incredible, that I love, that you wouldn't have seen years ago is the autonomous features — adaptive cruise control, lane departure, all things that make the driving experience more relaxing and easier and safer," said Russ Bauer, general manager of Langway Chevrolet-Volkswagen in Manchester, Vt.
Though relatively new, autonomous accident-avoidance features are having an effect, reports the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational group dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes. The biggest benefit so far, the IIHS reports, comes from front-crash prevention, which it notes that automakers have agreed to make standard equipment on nearly all new models sold by 2022.
Such driving-assist features are part of the technology story. Cars now offer greater connectivity than ever, allowing drivers to make use of their cellphones' apps. At the same time, voice command systems have become nearly ubiquitous, meaning that drivers use those apps without taking their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel.
Cars in general have gotten lighter, integrating materials like aluminum, titanium and polycarbonate in the interest of better gas mileage. In the same vein, engines are smaller and more powerful than before.
The specifications tell the tale. A 2008 Toyota Camry, for instance, weighed 3,340 pounds, was powered by a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four, and returned, on average, 25 miles per gallon. Its 2018 equivalent weighs 3,241 pounds, gets 203 horsepower out of its 2.5-liter four, and gets 34 mpg. A 2018 Ford F-150 pickup weighs nearly 400 pounds less than its 2008 counterpart, gets 88 more horsepower out of an engine that's nearly a liter smaller, and delivers 19 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway, versus 14/19.
Automakers have also been embracing gas-electric hybrid technology, and launching all-electric vehicles. Plug-in hybrids have batteries that are charged by the engine and by external sources, allowing short-range trips on battery power, and long-range hybrid operation.
To see some of the new technology in action, we visited six new-car dealers — Mercedes-Benz of Springfield and Haddad Toyota of Pittsfield, both in Massachusetts; Brattleboro Subaru, Carbone Honda in Bennington, and Langway Chevrolet-Volkswagen of Manchester, all in Vermont; and Marchese Ford of New Lebanon, N.Y. — and spoke with some knowledgeable dealers.
We also slid behind the wheel of six new cars: an all-new Toyota Camry, a Ford F-150 pickup, a Subaru Impreza, a Subaru Outback, a Honda CR-V and a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which, this year, swaps a V6 engine for the V8.
Here are some of the features we sampled:
Adaptive cruise control: This not only sets the vehicle's cruising speed, but allows it to follow a slower vehicle at a set distance, using cameras, radar or laser guidance to "see" the car ahead.
"Say you get on the highway, set your cruise control to 65, and come up on slower traffic. It's going to slow you down to keep you that preset distance behind the car in front of you," said Paul Carmon, a sales and leasing consultant at Haddad Toyota. "When you pull out to pass them, it automatically goes back up — you don't have to touch the gas."
With adaptive cruise, there's no more need to fiddle with the cruise control's settings to keep pace with surrounding traffic. The feature also makes driving on congested streets less of a chore, as the car can creep along in traffic with no driver input on the brake or gas pedal needed.
Pre-collision braking: When the vehicle so equipped senses that it's going to strike an object, it's capable of bringing itself to a halt with no driver input needed. These systems will always use lights, tones or both to first warn the driver, and only take control of the brakes if the driver does nothing.
John McLean, a sales consultant with Brattleboro Subaru, provided a demonstration with a 2018 Impreza and a cardboard box mounted on an orange traffic cone. As he let the car roll toward the obstacle at 5 mph or so, a bright red "obstacle detected" message flashed on the dashboard, accompanied by a series of high-pitched beeps — an alert that most drivers would find hard to ignore. When McLean resisted the urge to apply the brakes, the car did it for him, bringing us to a full stop. It worked in reverse, too.
The system can also detect when a driver is in a panic stop, and help apply more force to the brake pedal, if needed.
Blind spot assist: For the most part, this is a passive system that uses a side mirror-mounted light to warn a driver that there's another vehicle in the next lane. Some systems will make a more animated warning if the driver signals an ill-advised lane change; the S-Class will provide resistance to changing lanes in such cases by applying the brake on the opposite-side rear wheel.
"I love [blind spot assist], because nobody does not like it," Wirth said. "It actually assists you. You're driving, you're doing everything. The only thing we're doing is, we're giving you a red light. That doesn't impact your experience of driving the car."
Lane-departure warning: If a vehicle detects that it's drifting over the center line or into the breakdown lane, it will sound a warning and flash a light on the dashboard to alert the driver. In some cases, the driver will feel a gentle shake of the steering wheel, or vibrations that mimic a rumble strip.
These systems use a camera, or cameras, to read the lines on the roadway. If the lines are in poor shape or missing or covered with snow, the system is unable to function. Every system we tried used some sort of graphic to let the driver know when it was in operation.
Semiautonomous driving systems: Some systems take lane-departure warning a step further, by gently nudging the car back into its lane.
What happens if you take your hands off the wheel? The car will keep itself between the lines — for a while. Soon, the car will ask you to take the wheel, by flashing a light on the dash and beeping. If you ignore the warning long enough, the system will disable itself. Again, these are not autonomous vehicles.
With lane departure, the vehicle can keep tabs on the driver's alertness, and suggest when it might be time to take a break. "If you [drift over a line] two or three times in a minute, there'll be a little coffee cup, and it'll say `coffee break' on the dash," said Thomas Ozga of Marchese Ford.
Self-parking: By sensing what's around it, and being able to control the steering, a vehicle can now take the white knuckles out of parallel parking.
"It's wild to watch, but you can just sit there and the steering wheel starts turning and maneuvering you in, and you have a perfect parallel park, which, I believe, is a skill that not everybody has," Bauer said. "It'll back you into spots, too, or you could use it just to pull into a spot."
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility: By connecting a cellphone to the car with a cable, the driver is able to access a selection of apps through the car's digital display panel or entertainment center.
This allows drivers to play music, make hands-free telephone calls and ask Siri for the score of the ballgame or the directions to the nearest sushi bar. It also will read text messages, and allow the driver to dictate texts.
Don't worry — this doesn't mean that the driver in the next lane is scrolling through Pinterest.
"There's only approved apps that you can use, and it almost forces you to use audible commands instead of looking down at your screen," Bauer said. "It's pretty much standard on these new vehicles that we have."
Voice recognition itself is not new, but it has gotten much better in recent years, he added. "You used to have to say a command verbatim for it to understand. Now, it's a fluent, open conversation that you can have with the vehicle."
Back-up cameras: As of 2018, these are required on all passenger vehicles. This also means that all cars are now equipped with some kind of video screen in the dashboard.
Digital dashboards: Some carmakers are replacing gauges with highly convincing digital versions. This allows the driver to toggle through a variety of gauge designs and arrangements, or in some cases to display other information, like route guidance, right in the line of sight.
How is this new technology being received by the customer? Fairly well, by all accounts, with older drivers just as likely as their millennial counterparts to give a thumbs-up.
"I say about 70 percent embrace it," McLean said. "You'll have about 30 percent that just don't understand it. It's not that they don't want it; they just don't understand it."
On a test drive, he will demonstrate such features as pre-collision braking first.
"So, what I'm going to show [them] are certain things that a lot of people are scared to try, because it's new to them."
Bauer said his customers are "very receptive. There's some people who want to be in control 100 percent, and they don't want the car doing anything for them. But the nice thing about it is, if it is standard [equipment], you can shut it off, too. Basically, everything has an off switch."
"A lot of people like [the level of technology]," said Doug Crossman, a sales consultant at Carbone Honda. "It's a little weird [for them] at first, but when they come in for service, they certainly talk about how it's become a part of their driving, and it is very helpful."
Mercedes-Benz is very cautious in how it introduces features like lane-keeping assist, or accident prevention assist, Wirth said.
"Now, there's feedback from the car. All of a sudden, the car brakes when you didn't brake, or it steers when you didn't steer," he said. "And we're super sensitive to phasing that in in a way where customers see the benefit over `I'm giving up control.' It's not flashy, but it's the way that we end up with higher acceptance from our customers."
Ozga finds that, among pickup truck buyers, the features sell themselves.
"If I come out to show somebody something, if they have a truck that is 10, 15 years old, I'll ask, `Well, what are you looking for?' And they want a Lariat, which was the top of the line back then.
"Now, it's got the screen and all this stuff, and they say, `Aargh, I don't need all that!' And then they drive it, and they say, `I have to have it.' More options, more bells, more whistles, that's what they want. They want more, more, more."
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