Air bags, antilock brakes, and stability control. CD players, power locks and windows, and air conditioning. These are all features that at some point were optional (and sometimes costly) in vehicles, but over time we've come to expect them in every new car on the road -- whether that's due to legislation or changing buyer tastes. As cars continue to evolve, so grow our expectations of what should be included in the sticker price. I've rounded up a few optional car tech features that I'd like to see make the jump to being standard equipment.
Let's start with the most obvious one: Bluetooth. The best way to keep phone-toting drivers from plowing into things is to make it easy for them to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, by use of the ubiquitous Bluetooth connection that nearly every phone has. Unfortunately, early Bluetooth connectivity was pretty clunky and had traditionally been bundled as part of expensive technology packages. Drivers and lawmakers complained loudly and, by and large, automakers have started to make Bluetooth standard in their 2012 and 2013 model year vehicles. There are still a few stragglers that haven't jumped on the standard hands-free connectivity train, but my guess is that within a year or two nearly every new car will be hands-free-ready down to the most spartan models.
But this is a wish list of sorts, so why stop there? I want the hands-free calling to be as easy and safe to interact with as possible, so good voice command is a must. If an automaker doesn't want to develop a good voice dialer, the option to allow the phone to handle its own spoken commands with Siri and Google Voice Search would be a welcome addition. I also want Bluetooth audio streaming to be standard, since the hardware will already be in place.
Just like the mighty 8-track and cassette tapes that came before it, the CD player is on its way out of the dashboard. Chevrolet has already ditched the disc in the Spark subcompact, and I doubt that it'll be the last to do so.
Any automaker that doesn't offer USB connectivity for digital media as a standard feature across its line is already behind the tech curve. Why? Because no one buys physical media anymore. The success of digital music stores, such as iTunes and Amazon, and the availability of cheap flash media and digital-media players mean that the USB port is the new CD slot. Who wants to carry around a binder full of compact discs when you can shove an entire music library into your pocket on a USB key or iPod device?
While we're at it, put two USB ports on the dashboard and give them 1-amp or better, high-powered outputs to double their functionality as a fast-chargers for today's power-thirsty smartphones, eliminating the need to purchase 12-volt car chargers.
This is another obvious choice, because the U.S. government has been saying that it is going to make rearview cameras a required safety feature since about 2008. However, the deadline keeps getting pushed back and currently sits sometime beyond 2014. The simple acts of checking mirrors and turning your head shouldn't be downplayed, but automakers have continued to build cars with ever-decreasing rear visibility, thanks to high beltlines and thick rear pillars. Nearly everyone can benefit from the increased visibility afforded by a rear camera.
Suburban families with young children or outdoor pets gain the additional safety of not backing over someone or something important to them. Urbanites who often park parallel on the street gain an edge when squeezing into a tight spot, thanks to the camera's unique bumper-level view. (Maybe these standard cameras will stop San Franciscans from marring their and others' cars by using their bumpers to gauge parking distance.)
Blind-spot monitoring makes the list largely for the same reason that rearview cameras do: automakers are building cars with fairly poor visibility, making it difficult for even a good driver to do a simple over-the-shoulder check when changing lanes. And those not-so-good drivers who don't even bother with the over-the-shoulder check could definitely use a flashing light or audible alert to let them know that they're about to merge into me on the freeway. Either way, all of us could benefit from an extra set of electronic eyes watching our tails.
Nissan's latest generation of blind-spot monitoring technology is very interesting. The 2013 Altima doesn't use side sonar sensors like most systems do. Rather, it makes use of the ultrawide-angle rearview camera to provide optical monitoring of the vehicle's rear corners. Since we're already making the rear camera standard, this tech would hit two driver safety birds with one stone.
Car-centric app integration
I'm sure that this is the feature that the "zero tolerance for phones" contingency of CNET readers and commenters will take the most issue with, but bear with me.
A large number of drivers are already using apps in the car, sometimes illegally, for simple functions such as listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks, navigating to their destination, getting around traffic, and letting loved ones know where they are. Third-party technologies, such the Car Connectivity Consortium's MirrorLink and Livio Connect, are already making strides to make interacting with these apps as easy as tuning a radio station. Automakers are also making similar strides with their own technologies -- Toyota's Entune and Ford Sync AppLink, for example.
Since we can't put the smartphone apps genie back into the mobile technology bottle, let's instead focus on trying to make the current situation safer. A good app integration system should allow me to quickly access my favorite streaming-radio app, give me the fastest directions home using my favorite navigation app, and share my ETA with my friends using my favorite location-sharing app, using the large dashboard or touch-screen buttons (good), steering-wheel controls (better), or voice commands (best), all while my phone remains tucked away in my pocket.
We see again here that these features are already making their way into cars, but as components of expensive tech bundles that include overpriced navigation systems and premium audio rigs that could discourage many drivers from bothering. Since I'm already using my own phone and data plan, app integration should be cheap or free.
Do Not Disturb mode
Sometimes, even with today's best app integration systems, the temptation to check that incoming text message on the phone can be just too much for some drivers. So, it's not enough that app integration systems simply not support non-car apps; they'll have to actively suppress those other apps and their notifications with a Do Not Disturb mode.
Some infotainment systems, such as MyFord Touch, already offer a Do Not Disturb feature that silences calls and texts, automatically responding via SMS that you're driving. However, this system is totally optional and defeatable, which limits its usefulness to the very type of distracted driver it attempts to protect. I propose that, in order to access the easy-to-use app integration that I asked for in the previous section, the phone should be required to enter a Do Not Disturb mode of sorts, silencing notifications for text messages, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, and other apps you should probably not be fooling with until the car is parked. This could be as simple as putting the phone into a silent, no-vibration mode, only funneling car-relevant information through the vehicle's own interface; or as complex as totally locking down the phone at the OS level.
Since we're speculating, I'd like to see my amazing Do Not Disturb feature used as a parental lock for young and inexperienced drivers, requiring that teenager's smartphone be paired with the car's hands-free system for emergency phone calls, but locked out for apps and texts when the vehicle is in motion.
I may be asking for a lot here, and no doubt the truly foolhardy would still find a way to circumvent this feature, but I think that giving drivers incentive to give up their texts and tweets for a while as an exchange for easy access to the music and navigation apps that they love would go a long way toward improving vehicular safety -- certainly much further than simply finger-wagging about what people shouldn't be doing behind the wheel. Make both systems standard and you've got a one-two punch for managing driver distraction.
So, what did we miss? What favorite car tech feature would you like to see made standard on tomorrow's cars? Sound off in the comments and let us know.