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The Top Car Tech Of 2011

 
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GM CUE interface - 2013 Cadillac XTS

GM CUE interface - 2013 Cadillac XTS

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We'll likely look back on 2011 as the year that the app truly entered our automobiles, becoming integrated with our Bluetooth-connected smartphones and, in some cases, fully integrated with vehicle infotainment systems.

But in looking to name the top tech—and the top tech stories—of 2011, we fought the urge to simply rattle off a series of apps. By themselves, they're hardly the technology; but together with the carefully designed, innovative in-car interfaces, like GM's upcoming CUE, connectivity is the year's top tech story.

There's lots more, although much of it is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Mechanically, the auto industry largely continued some trends that have been underway for several years: Turbocharging became more common; direct-injection engines continued to proliferate the market; and transmissions gained gears, with seven- and eight-speed units no longer eye-raising and even word that a ten-speed was being developed. Electrification of the vehicle is underway, but with electric cars and hybrids such a small piece of the pie, it's going to be a sluggish start.

Another key thread of the year is the advancement of safety-tech and accident-avoidance features into their second or third generations, with cost coming down on some items, allowing us to see features like obstacle detection and blind-spot alert in much more affordable models. And as we look forward to a future of smart, connected cars, we might look back on some of the headlines, such as those for Google's driverless car, and single this year out as an especially insightful time when seemingly broader themes came together to give us a clearer vision of what's 10 or 20 years ahead.

Focusing back on individual items, here are nine of the top car-tech items and stories of 2011:

GM CUE interface - 2013 Cadillac XTS

GM CUE interface - 2013 Cadillac XTS

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GM's CUE: Better than an iPad. Love it or hate it, over the next several years we're going to be seeing even more instrument-panel real estate dedicated to screen-based systems, especially touch screens. While MyFord Touch made a plunge last year, it's been followed in close succession by a host of other interfaces—Chrysler's UConnect Touch, the GM system known as IntelliLink (Buick) and MyLink (Chevy)—that aim to do most of what the Ford system can do, but with a little more simplicity. However, none of them quite matches up to GM's upcoming system for Cadillac models, called CUE (Cadillac User Experience).

While CUE isn't yet out (it won't arrive until next spring, in the new 2013 Cadillac XTS), it shows the direction of in-car touch-screen interfaces and packs several industry firsts. It's not just the first automotive touch-screen system to use a capacitative screen (think iPad); it'll also be the biggest (12.3 inches) and brightest at launch, and the first auto interface to recognize 'gestures'—think the tap, flick, swipe, and spread motions we're now used to making with phones, and more. But it goes beyond what the iPad has; haptic feedback pushes back lightly against your finger to give the menu options a 'texture,' and proximity sensors see when your hand is approaching, with the screen only then showing more options, to minimize distraction the rest of the time. A strong processor should keep it all quick. Match with this a completely new natural-language data set, and CUE is looking like one of the most important new pieces of car tech in 2012.

MINI Connected with Pandora

MINI Connected with Pandora

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Integrated Pandora and Stitcher. Satellite radio might give you plenty of listening options already, and HD Radio is finally making it into production vehicles this year, further broadening your possibilities beyond traditional FM; but seriously, who needs radio anyways? As custom streaming sites like Pandora and Stitcher have shown us, the way we listen is changing with the technology; programming in your own 'radio'—beamed in from the cloud—is most likely the way of the future. Over the past year we've seen a rapid revolution, with a host of models offering integrated controls of your custom 'stations,' while you use the data connection from your smartphone.

Pandora seems to have a leg up on rivals for the moment—Hyundai is even offering it standard in its affordable Veloster—but the market has by no means shaken out. As we look into next year we'll see more applications from Spotify and others. In the meantime, a little competition from satellite radio isn't bad; look for more XM Sirius systems to include time-shifting buffers, and features like favorites and tagging.

Ford Auto Start-Stop fact sheet

Ford Auto Start-Stop fact sheet

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Start-stop comes to affordable cars. Start-stop (or idle stop) systems, which smartly shut the engine off at stoplights, then start it back up as soon as you lift off the brake, are a no-brainer for stoplight-peppered U.S. driving. These systems can boost real-world mileage by one to four miles per gallon in congested city driving, depending on the vehicle; but ask automakers, and it's still a tough road, as EPA ratings don't represent the improvement most U.S. commuters will see. Also, thanks to components borrowed from hybrids, as well as components like electric power steering and smart alternators, start-stop is now more affordable. Porsche now offers it on its Cayenne and Panamera model lines, but the brightest news is that Kia is offering it as a low-cost option on the 2012 Rio; it's also included with the new, four-cylinder 2012 BMW 528i. It's just a year away for some Ford models as well. 

The technology finally looks poised to take off; one analysis firm recently projected that a quarter of all U.S. vehicles will include it by 2015, and 25 million vehicles will be sold with the feature globally by 2017. That's a lot of fuel saved—and as it doesn't affect anything about how the vehicles drive, that's a win-win.




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