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.
GM CUE interface - 2013 Cadillac XTS
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'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).
GM CUE interface - 2013 Cadillac XTS
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.
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.
MINI Connected with Pandora
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.
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.
Ford Auto Start-Stop fact sheet
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.
Headlights go LED...and laser? Lasers are much better known as surgical devices—or even sci-fi plot devices—than lights themselves. But now BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and potentially other automakers are working to build laser-based headlights, to arrive within just a few years. The potential: very compact packaging and greater intensity, all with better energy efficiency (which might make them great picks for electric cars). Laser headlights bode well—and they make the somewhat bluish light of pricey xenon lamps look so...2001.
BMW laser headlight technology
Meanwhile, the white beams of light-emitting diode (LED) running lamps and brake lights first hit the market in a few exotic and luxury cars many years ago now, but they're just starting to reach the mainstream and be used for the headlamps themselves. Look for them now in the 2012 Toyota Prius, as well as many luxury-brand vehicles.
Volvo's life-saving City Safety. Despite an unfortunate early demonstration for the press, and a few low-speed demos that didn't fully illustrate the point, Volvo's new City Safety system, now offered in the 2012 S60, XC60, XC70, and S80, is a lifesaver in the real world. In fact, the system, which was introduced last year but has been installed in thousands of vehicles this year, is doing so well that the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) earlier this year found that owners of the Volvo XC60 with the device were filing about 50 percent fewer bodily injury claims—whether compared to other vehicles in its class, or other Volvos in general.
Volvo City Safety collision-avoidance system
Using a combination of radar sensors and a camera system, can identify potential issues up ahead—other vehicles, or pedestrians or obstacles in some cases—and warn the driver with a chime and light. In some versions (and situations), the system could do the braking for you, to either lessen the impact or, at lower speeds, prevent it entirely.
While systems employing radar are expensive, we hope to see features incorporating some of the smarts of City Safety trickle down to other mainstream models very soon.
Fair warning for drowsy, distracted drivers. In 2011, we've paid quite a lot of well-deserved attention toward the issues of cellphone-related distraction. But in today's frenzied, sleep-deprived world, driving drowsy is a serious problem. Mercedes-Benz introduced an earlier version of Attention Assist, several years ago in its current E-Class; unlike systems that aim a camera at the driver, it primarily reads the patterns as we make fine steering adjustments, identifying when attention is lapsing and sounding a chime and coffee-cup symbol. What we applaud in 2012 is that it's now fine-tuned the system, and made it standard in the newly redesigned 2012 M-Class. And the feature looks ready to find its way into mainstream vehicles; Ford is also adding a driver-alert feature to its Lane Keeping Technology, available in the Ford Explorer.
Mercedes-Benz Attention Assist
The drowsy-driving warning could make a significant difference in fatalities. According to Mercedes-Benz, 25 percent of serious accidents are caused by driver fatigue, and chances of an accident for drivers who've been on the road for four hours is doubled—or eight times higher after six hours of driving.
Google's car can drive itself. Earlier this year, Google revealed that it had been testing a self-driving car on public roads—albeit with people as backup pilots. The news left legislators and law-enforcement personnel scrambling, wondering how they might deal with the idea of a driverless vehicle. Was it legal? Who would be accountable in an accident? And how reliable or accurate is such a vehicle? These are all questions that Google is likely still seeking answers to—as of yet, it's a tech teaser in many respects—but for now the headline is simply that such a car exists.
Google's Self-Driving Toyota Prius
Wireless charging mats charge your smartphone—and might just charge your vehicle. Away with the wires! Earlier in the year, we reported that GM had struck an agreement to feature Powermat inductive charging devices in the automaker's vehicles—allowing wireless charging of smartphones or other mobile devices in about the same time as with a conventional wired charger. The next step is taking it up to vehicle scale; several automakers, including Nissan (Leaf), are working on the idea of an inductive wireless charging mat, and it could just be a couple of years away.
Powermat wireless charge pad in Chevrolet Volt
Audi takes navigation to the cloud(s). Audi has already made most in-car navigation systems look obsolete with its beautiful new version of MMI, which incorporated not only an innovative scratch pad, called MMI Touch, that let you trace out an address or name's individual letters, one at a time, but also 3D Google Earth satellite images—made possible through dedicated LTE mobile Internet connectivity and overlaid with map data. Now Audi is adding Google Street View functionality to the system so that—when you're still a few blocks away, perhaps—you can keep an eye out for the awning of a particular storefront. With the potential speed from the LTE connection (more than six times faster than 3G), we anticipate that the integrated Internet radio connectivity being added this year is only the start of a whole suite of interactive features.
Audi A8 MMI Navigation with Google functionality