Over the next week, Yahoo Autos will unveil the 2016 Ride of the Year awards, our picks for the best of the best among new cars and SUVs. Here’s the first, our Tech Ride of the Year.
Yahoo Autos invited me to help judge the Ride of the Year competition—as a technology judge, of course. Over the course of several days in Detroit, we tested, drove, and discussed 22 new 2016 car models.
But what do we mean when we talk about “car technology?”
Are we talking about information and entertainment on a dashboard screen?
Or do we mean driving technologies, the ones that make the ride comfortable, fuel-efficient, and safe?
I took my assignment to mean: both.
If I had one reaction to the technologies crammed into next year’s car dashboards, it was: “Jeez!”
Many of these cars basically have iPads built into their dashboards—in some cars, several of them. The touchscreens can show you all kinds of information about the world around you, and entertain you in all kinds of fancy ways.
But they can’t avoid distracting you.
Car makers are caught in a bind: Infotainment sells, but using a touchscreen also requires taking your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel.
My favorite touchscreen systems, therefore, were the ones that use Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. These systems are extremely simple, feature huge fat touchscreen buttons, and limit interaction to quick adjustments. They use voice interaction as much as possible, to help you keep your eyes on the road.
Problem is, not everybody owns an iPhone or Android phone, so no car comes with just CarPlay or Android Auto. Any car equipped with those systems also have to have a generic layout of exactly the same functions—a duplicate, redundant, and silly arrangement.
We hear plenty about Google’s experimental, self-driving cars. The cars that you can actually buy today aren’t fully autonomous, like Google’s. But the nicer ones, with the nicer options packages, can stay in the lane themselves, self-park, and accelerate/brake themselves. You’re required to keep at least one hand on the wheel while driving.
The main things these cars can’t do on their own: making turns and changing lanes. Here’s what they do offer, though:
Adaptive Cruise Control. Adaptive cruise control involves your car watching the car ahead of you. It tries to maintain your chosen highway speed (say, 65 miles an hour), as in regular cruise control—but slows down as necessary to avoid hitting a car ahead of you, and then speeds back up again automatically.
Adaptive cruise control is fantastic and very polished. I let a 2016 Acura ILX drive itself almost all the way to the Detroit airport, and the thing never missed.
Stop-and-go cruise control. On some cars, you can use adaptive cruise control all the way down to zero miles an hour. On the Volvo XC90, for example, it’s called Pilot Assist; on the Mercedes GLE-Class it’s called Stop & Go Pilot. But the idea is the same in each case: The car can drive itself when you’re inching along in stop-and-go traffic. It’s cruise control for traffic jams—another prize-winning feature.
Lane assist. With one press of a button on the steering wheel, many of these cars can stay in the current lane. If you start to drift outside of the lines, they either alert you, they correct your steering automatically, or both. (On the Audi TT and Ford Edge, the steering wheel vibrates in your hands to get your attention; on the Caddy, the seat vibrates.)
This feature isn’t as rock-solid as the adaptive cruise stuff. A couple of times, the Mercedes GLE350 4Matic drifted over the yellow center line, for example. Overall, lane assist might lull you into a sense of confidence, but in fact, you need to pay just as much attention as you do when driving unassisted.
Parking Assist. As you move slowly, cameras on the side of the car look for a parking space. When it finds a spot, the screen tells you to stop and put the car in reverse. The steering wheel wildly turns by itself, as though manipulated by a ghost. Eventually, you’re instructed to stop and put the car into Drive again, then into Reverse again, and so on, until you’re neatly parked. You’re expected to do the braking, shifting, and accelerating; the car just handles the steering.
Some cars I tested, like the Chevy Malibu and Camaro, usually did a pretty terrible job at parking. I had better luck with some other car brands, like the Volvo, but none was perfect.
Situational Awareness. External sensors and cameras are a hallmark of the new generation of cars. For example, using clever image-stitching software, cars like the Volvo XC90 and can combine the images from all of the external cameras into what seems to be an aerial view of your car and its surroundings.
Many of the cars can alert you (with beeping or flashing icons) when you’re about to hit the car in front of you, when there’s another car in your mirror’s blind spot, when you’re drifting out of your lane, or when you’re backing up and something or someone is approaching from the side.
You can turn all of these things off, but why? If you’re driving safely and all is well, you’ll never know these alarms are there. But when the time comes, those beeps and flashes may save your car—or your life.
What Self-Driving Means
I already know what a lot of people will say when they’re offered these features: “I like to drive! I don’t want some computer driving for me!”
Understood. They’re optional. You don’t have to buy them, and you don’t have to turn them on.
But the advantages of self-driving cars are enormous. Think about those tens of millions of aging baby boomers whose years of mobility can be extended. Think about the fuel consumption and traffic that can be avoided by smarter, safer cars.
Above all, think of the accidents and deaths that can be avoided. According to the latest statistics, 100 percent of car accidents are caused with people behind the wheel. We are, as a species, terrible drivers. We get bored and distracted. Worldwide, we crash 10 million times a year, and kill 1.3 million people.
The self-driving features that enhance our safety, like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warnings, and cross-traffic alerts, are brilliant advances. They work. They avoid accidents.
Years from now, we’ll chuckle at how quaint these transitional efforts were. But all technology takes time to ripen. And even the semi-autonomous car models of 2016 will strike most people as pretty magical.
Oh—and the winner in the driving tech Division? It’s the Volvo XC90, hands down. Best ride, most unobtrusive technology, most refined self-driving and safety features.