Media Coverage

SmartMoney Magazine - The New Robo Cars

07/08/2011 - By MISSY SULLIVAN

For most drivers bringing home a shiny new set of wheels from the dealership, it's tough to resist an inaugural joyride or two -- to crank up the sound system, try the heated seats, maybe gun it giddily through a few winding turns. But when Kevin Harper brought home his Volvo XC60 with the turbo V-6 engine, he didn't really spend any time reveling in the hepped-up horsepower or the 12-speaker surround sound. For the 36-year-old Clinton, Md., patent examiner, the real wow factor came when he tested the high-tech "queue assist" feature of his adaptive cruise control. Through five miles of stop-and-go rush hour traffic and numerous red lights, he marveled (nervously) as the car did all its own braking, without his foot ever touching the pedal. "It's like being a backseat driver, only in the driver's seat," says Harper.

Memo to U.S. drivers: Get used to it. As car buying once again accelerates -- so far, sales have risen 14 percent this year, compared with the same period last year -- chances are good that consumers will be driving off dealer lots with an increasing number of robo-car features. Many of the technologies, like Harper's adaptive cruise control, have been around for years, but they're being continually tweaked to help vehicles operate more autonomously. And new smart-car features keep coming, from proactive safety systems (like cars that self-slam their brakes for errant pedestrians) to parental controls that can limit radio volume for teen drivers. Of course, the biggest tech trend hitting the auto world is all that voice-activated, wireless Web surfing we'll be doing, having the car read our texts aloud or find the nearest Mongolian barbecue joint. Eventually, government officials say, smart cars will even be connecting to -- yes -- smart roads, which won't just lie there sprouting potholes but will beam data about traffic, construction and driving conditions to passing motorists. As for the slightly more distant future? Let's just say that Google is testing self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco. And Ford's engineers are experimenting with in-cabin health monitors that measure things like the driver's glucose levels. Showing signs of stress? The car's computer might put on some mellow tunes.

Although these are, at the end of the day, just gadgets, experts say battered carmakers hope such technology will be the key to winning the next generation of drivers. New York-based firm ABI Research estimates the $37 billion car-tech market will more than triple in the next four years. One reason: As costs drop, gizmos once only available in luxury cars are now coming to an econobox near you. The dinky Ford Fiesta ($14,000) offers an option that will automatically call 911 after an accident, while parking-phobes driving a Toyota Prius can now use both hands to unwrap a granola bar as the hybrid pilots itself into a tight space. And with the overall quality gap between the best and worst carmakers dropping -- by almost 75 percent over the past 23 years, according to J.D. Power -- reliability isn't the differentiating factor it once was. Indeed, experts say consumers' car-buying criteria may be fundamentally changing. "Horsepower fascination is being replaced with bits and bytes," says Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for research firm Gartner.

But fast-moving technology always brings questions: Are futuristic features worth the premium that carmakers often charge, especially when they're bundled into pricey packages -- and quickly become outdated? Will they create dangerous distractions? And then there's the fact that the bits and bytes don't always work "like buttah." As for those new systems designed to keep you from mowing down pedestrians? For now at least, most of them don't brake for animals.

Safety

It wasn't too long ago that the techiest thing in car safety was a seat belt system that beeped until everyone strapped in. Now our huge metal beasts have been outfitted with high-tech eyes and ears (think lasers, radar and cameras) that, along with onboard computers, promise to do things like scan our blind spots or, when a crash seems imminent, tighten seat belts, close the sunroof and hit the brakes. Few cars actually have such features -- only about 5 percent currently offer so-called precollision systems -- but analysts expect sales of "advanced driver assistance" features to account for the majority of the car-tech market by 2015, as manufacturing prices drop and the systems find their way into a wider range of models.

Price, it turns out, is a crucial factor. In a recent survey by J.D. Power, 75 percent of consumers showed interest in headlights that adapt to curves in the road to improve visibility. Then they learned the price -- and interest dropped to 45 percent. Indeed, smart safety options are often available only as part of an expensive feature package. A collision-warning system for the Lexus HS hybrid sedan, for example, can only be purchased as part of a broader technology package ($3,900), which also requires a navigation package ($2,125) and wide-view mirror with backup camera ($700). (Lexus says they're grouped to appeal to a buyer who wants high-tech features.) By contrast, midmarket brand Volvo loads its new technology bundle with collision warning, adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection, among other safety systems -- for $2,100. One reason for the price gap, says Mark Boyadjis, senior automotive analyst at consultancy IHS iSuppli: different technologies. To power its "driver monitor" feature, he says, Lexus uses a camera mounted on the steering column to read a driver's face for signs of drowsiness or inattentiveness, while Volvo's version aggregates data coming from existing radar and cameras to measure how consistently the car is being handled -- like whether it's drifting into other lanes.

For all its sci-fi flashiness, auto-safety technology is very much a work in progress. Laser and radar sensors can still be confounded by fog or mud splatter. In a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than half of all forward crash warnings were found to be invalid. And systems designed to keep vehicles from hitting pedestrians may not work unless (a) it's daylight, (b) that person is over 31 inches tall (sorry, kids), and (c) the individual isn't carrying a package. Critics say more autonomous cars could give drivers false confidence, causing them to pay less attention to the road. But Dave LeBlanc, who researches automotive safety systems at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says studies show that people understand they're not perfect: "It's clear to most drivers that they're an aid and not a substitute for careful driving."

Driver Tracking

When Bren and Jack Yeager's 16-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, started getting behind the wheel last fall, the Texas couple decided to "do something more than just cross [their] fingers," Jack says. After looking at several GPS-powered tracking devices that would sit discreetly under the dash and tattle-text them with the car's whereabouts, speed and seat belt status, they ultimately chose something a little less stealthy: a talking mini computer called Tiwi. Sure, it beams them Mackenzie's every automotive move, but it also hawkishly calls out the teen for each rookie mistake, repeating phrases like "speed violation" aloud until she self-corrects -- and giving her a 15-second grace period before messaging her parents. Mackenzie calls it annoying, but her dad says the robo coaching works. "Giving a teenager a 5,000-pound rocket is a big responsibility," Jack says. "It can do a lot of damage."

Parents have reason to fret. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more than one in every three teenage deaths. This may explain the niche market's speedy growth: Sales of one pioneering gadget, MobileTeenGPS, have risen 50 percent annually over the past two years, while Inthinc, the company behind Tiwi, says sales doubled from 2009 to 2010. Such tools can allow parents to cap a car's speed, set geographic "fences" and disable cell phone use while the car is in motion. For example, Tiwi, which costs $299, plus a monthly subscription fee, doesn't just convey the car's speed; it also compares that number with the local speed limits in its database, so parents know how much a kid's over. While most tracking systems are sold as aftermarket kits outside the dealership, Ford has recently jumped into the fray with MyKey, a control system that comes standard in almost every model and lets parents limit a vehicle's top speed and radio volume.

But many of these new nanny controls can be confusing to newbies, as Courtney Taylor discovered on a recent business trip, when she picked up a rental at the airport, bypassing the counter and going straight to the lot. The Indianapolis-based consultant said that when she needed to accelerate to merge onto the interstate, the car kept chiming and flashing a strange message on the dash. Not having been told about any controls -- and unable to turn it off -- she couldn't merge and found herself driving briefly on the shoulder. "It was unnerving," says Taylor. "You never know when you're going to need to accelerate."

Convenience

Some of the most profound engineering changes aren't about averting mortal danger; they're about solving life's little annoyances. Just talk to anyone who's ever fumbled for a key or scraped ice from the windshield, morning after frigid morning. Which is why physical keys seem to be going the way of the roll-up window. Unlocking a car is quickly evolving from beeping a button on the remote to touching the driver's door while a "smart fob" sits in your pocket, quietly emitting its open-sesame vibes. The new Ford C-MAX crossover promises package-toting drivers the ability to open their back hatch by waving a foot under the bumper -- as long as the fob is somewhere on their person (and the bumper sensor isn't, say, caked with mud).

Anyone who saw the pint-size Darth Vader "starting" his dad's Volkswagen Passat in this year's Super Bowl ad knows that one new feature being promoted is factory-installed remote engine activation. The idea: Use a remote to crank up the ignition and heater while still indoors sipping coffee in your jammies. (Unfortunately for would-be joyriders, you need a key to put it in gear.) And pretty soon, we'll be tossing those fobs altogether. GM's OnStar supports smartphone apps that let you lock, unlock and start the car directly from your phone.

Phones can't park the car yet, but in most higher-end cars, a dashboard button can. Parking-assist systems, which range in price from $400 to $1,750, "search" for a big enough space, beep when one is found and automatically turn the wheel to guide the car in. Experts say the newest self-parking systems, like those available in the midpriced 2012 Ford Focus, use ultrasonic sensors to communicate with the steering wheel; Ford says its system can read 14 different types of curbs. (Earlier technologies, which rely more on cameras, have a reputation for failing in tight spaces or on an incline.) For his part, George Douglas, a television-systems technologist from Ojai, Calif., calls the self-parking option on his BMW 535i "trippy"; he says it puts the car 4 inches from the curb every time -- "just like you're supposed to on your driving test." Of course, he says, he still has to man the brakes through the process and veto spots near hydrants or driveways. "It's not that smart yet," says Douglas. (BMW says the feature requires the driver to be "fully engaged" in picking an appropriate spot.)

Infotainment

When Tony Rettig went car shopping recently, his list of must-haves started with keyless entry and keyless start. But what really sold him on his new BMW 550i was the idea of hopping into the car with music playing on his iPhone and hearing the playlist switch seamlessly to the car's speakers. The BMW can also read Facebook and Twitter messages aloud -- and send replies -- and lets the Findlay, Ohio, furniture retailer e-mail directions from his iPad directly to the car's nav-system memory. And when his wife goes into a store for "just a minute"? That's when he plans on streaming video podcasts through the 550i's 10.25-inch screen. "I'm a product of modern society," says Rettig. "Heaven help me if I get bored."

Americans spend an average of nearly 20 hours a week in their vehicles, says research group Arbitron, and experts say they're demanding more connectivity to the world beyond their bumpers. According to consulting firm Deloitte, Gen Y (20-somethings, roughly), who view cars as "personal tech cocoons," will make up 40 percent of the car-buying population by 2012. No surprise then that the killer connectivity app is, well, apps -- especially those delivering things like movie times and restaurant reservations. With in-car Internet availability expected to jump tenfold in the next four years, carmakers are clamoring to cash in on the mobile-connectivity gold rush. GM's OnStar, one of the first "telematics" systems, is now available as a $299 add-on kit for other makes of car. Ford says it's had a huge response to its Sync system: In models where it's offered as an option ($395), buyers have chosen it 80 percent of the time. Sync uses Bluetooth to access smartphone content and channel it through voice technology, so that drivers, in theory, won't have to take their eyes off the road. Toyota and Hyundai are launching similar systems.

Safety advocates say all this tech will create dangerous distractions for drivers, but automakers insist that using voice controls is a lot safer than pecking away behind the wheel. Still, with new cockpit technology offering more than 10,000 voice-command options, drivers like Gary Schwartz can find it a bit, well, much. The 76-year-old retiree from Howell, Mich., recently got a new car and says talking to it hasn't been nearly as simple as it looked in the commercials: "I had to make a cheat sheet."

or most drivers bringing home a shiny new set of wheels from the dealership, it's tough to resist an inaugural joyride or two -- to crank up the sound system, try the heated seats, maybe gun it giddily through a few winding turns. But when Kevin Harper brought home his Volvo XC60 with the turbo V-6 engine, he didn't really spend any time reveling in the hepped-up horsepower or the 12-speaker surround sound. For the 36-year-old Clinton, Md., patent examiner, the real wow factor came when he tested the high-tech "queue assist" feature of his adaptive cruise control. Through five miles of stop-and-go rush hour traffic and numerous red lights, he marveled (nervously) as the car did all its own braking, without his foot ever touching the pedal. "It's like being a backseat driver, only in the driver's seat," says Harperor most drivers bringing home a shiny new set of wheels from the dealership, it's tough to resist an inaugural joyride or two -- to crank up the sound system, try the heated seats, maybe gun it giddily through a few winding turns. But when Kevin Harper brought home his Volvo XC60 with the turbo V-6 engine, he didn't really spend any time reveling in the hepped-up horsepower or the 12-speaker surround sound. For the 36-year-old Clinton, Md., patent examiner, the real wow factor came when he tested the high-tech "queue assist" feature of his adaptive cruise control. Through five miles of stop-and-go rush hour traffic and numerous red lights, he marveled (nervously) as the car did all its own braking, without his foot ever touching the pedal. "It's like being a backseat driver, only in the driver's seat," says Harperor most drivers bringing home a shiny new set of wheels from the dealership, it's tough to resist an inaugural joyride or two -- to crank up the sound system, try the heated seats, maybe gun it giddily through a few winding turns. But when Kevin Harper brought home his Volvo XC60 with the turbo V-6 engine, he didn't really spend any time reveling in the hepped-up horsepower or the 12-speaker surround sound. For the 36-year-old Clinton, Md., patent examiner, the real wow factor came when he tested the high-tech "queue assist" feature of his adaptive cruise control. Through five miles of stop-and-go rush hour traffic and numerous red lights, he marveled (nervously) as the car did all its own braking, without his foot ever touching the pedal. "It's like being a backseat driver, only in the driver's seat," says Harperor most drivers bringing home a shiny new set of wheels from the dealership, it's tough to resist an inaugural joyride or two -- to crank up the sound system, try the heated seats, maybe gun it giddily through a few winding turns. But when Kevin Harper brought home his Volvo XC60 with the turbo V-6 engine, he didn't really spend any time reveling in the hepped-up horsepower or the 12-speaker surround sound. For the 36-year-old Clinton, Md., patent examiner, the real wow factor came when he tested the high-tech "queue assist" feature of his adaptive cruise control. Through five miles of stop-and-go rush hour traffic and numerous red lights, he marveled (nervously) as the car did all its own braking, without his foot ever touching the pedal. "It's like being a backseat driver, only in the driver's seat," says Harper