I can remember the first time I ever owned a car with electric windows. It is with an understandable tinge of shame that I tell you I used to stop and ask for directions, just to show them off. (In my defence, I was very young…) They were, to me, the very height of sophistication and I couldn’t imagine what on earth they would think up next.
How little I knew. The modern car is stuffed to the gunnels with the sort of technology that would have seemed – in fact, was – Space Age a couple of decades ago.
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This complexity seems to have come at little cost, too. Modern cars might feature considerably more computing power than it took to put a man on the moon, but they are also far more reliable than at any other time in our history.
Cheaper too, both to buy and to run. It is, I think, fair to say that we will look back at this time as something of a Golden Age of motoring: safe cars, efficient cars – and cars that we were still driving ourselves.
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Here are some of the features that the modern driver can rely on to make his or her driving safer, more convenient, and more enjoyable.
The head-up display, or HUD, is fighter jet technology made real, projecting images straight onto your windscreen.
The information is generally limited to the car’s speed alongside the prevailing speed limit plus directions from the sat-nav.
The real benefit here is that the driver no longer has to glance down at the car’s speedometer, so their eyes can remain focused on the road for longer. There is also no confusion as to how fast the car is travelling, something that is easy to lose track of now that car’s are so quiet and well insulated.
The most basic version of active headlights switch themselves on when it gets dark and then move from high-beam to low-beam when they detect the presence of oncoming traffic.
This means that you can never forget to turn them on – and at this time of the year seeing a driver who has forgotten to do so is an everyday occurrence – and nor can you dazzle other drivers with a tardy flick of the stalk.
However, the latest generation – fitted to cars such as the Vauxhall Astra – feature LED Matrix technology that constantly adapts the pattern and intensity of the headlights’ beam depending on the traffic conditions.
The result is uncannily effective, giving the best possible illumination at all times without dazzling oncoming vehicles. It is so effective that I’m not sure I drove anything in 2015 that felt more otherworldly.
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It rains. You turn on your wipers. It stops raining. You turn them off. The process has been understood fairly well for the past half-century or so.
Then came intermittent wipers, closely followed by intermittent wipers with a user-adjustable variable delay.
Now, as if they weren’t sophisticated enough, we have self-activating wipers that turn on when it rains, adjusting the speed and frequency of the sweep to cope with the intensity of the rain.
It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s actually far more useful than that; you set it to ‘auto’ and never have to think about your wipers ever again. Some problems are too trivial to waste even a fraction of a moment thinking about them.
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Laser fog lights
Few drivers understand how and when to use fog lights, and by the time it’s foggy enough to have to use them, their usefulness has been diminished by the very weather they are designed to cope with.
After all, a 21W bulb is not very bright, and so their sole purpose these days seems to be as a comfort blanket for people who don’t like driving in the rain.
The laser fog light from Audi is set to change all that, projecting a high-intensity red laser beam behind it. The clever bit is that the beam is a horizontal line on the road, acting as a very visible and completely intuitive barrier to stop following drivers getting too close. It’s brilliantly simple and will, I predict, save thousands of lives over the coming years.
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First we had heaters. (Well, to be accurate, first we had thick coats and travel blankets…) Then we had heated seats. Then heated steering wheels.
Now we have in-car pre-heaters, which can be operated via a timer or an app on your iPhone. Imagine the joy of stepping into a car that is already toasty and warm and defrosted.
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Digital dashboard gauges
While we can all appreciate a classic white-on-black Smiths’ gauge, some modern cars now feature fully digital dashboards, complete with faux digital gauges.
The advantages are that the colour and the layout of the dashboard can be fully customised to suit your needs or mood.
(Of course, if you like a traditional clock, Bentley will oblige with a custom Breitling for your new Bentayga – for a trifling £150,000, or the same price as the car itself.)
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Foot-activated boot release
Imagine the scene: you’ve got your hands full of shopping bags that you need to put into your car’s boot. The car keys are in one of your pockets (or maybe your handbag, you’ve forgotten the precise details) and it’s raining. You’re cold, wet, and fed-up.
How nice it would be to, oh, I don’t know, perhaps wave a foot around in an elegant fashion to trigger the boot release?
Well, your dreams have come true because Ford now fits this very feature to a number of its vehicles: the car senses your proximity by detecting those hard-to-find keys in your pocket and readies itself. You wiggle a foot (the elegant part is optional…) and a sensor under the rear bumper unlocks and opens the boot for you.
I know we’ve landed on Mars, but sometimes it’s the little things that make a real difference, isn’t it?
What’s your favourite car gadget? Or the one you like the least? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!
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