Alexa is Amazon's wildly popular voice technology, and while most people are using it to shop, check the weather or play music, automakers such as Nissan, Ford, and BMW are rapidly incorporating it into their latest models. You can ask Alexa to start your vehicle remotely, unlock its doors, even use it to order a cup of coffee from Starbucks or a pizza to go from Domino's.
The 2018 model-year is bringing a series of rapid changes to the automobile and the automobile industry as a whole. One of the most significant is the rapid addition of new onboard technologies turning the automobile into a computer on wheels. Indeed, the average new vehicle today has anywhere from 50 to 100 microprocessors onboard, notes Jurgen Otto, CEO of German mega-supplier Brose, with some of the most advanced models pushing that closer to 150.
Those microprocessors control everything from the car's engine to its adaptive suspension system. Some models, like the updated 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, actually scan the road ahead to see where the bumps and potholes are, adjusting individual shock absorbers to smooth out the ride.
Perhaps the biggest development for 2018 is the introduction of new, semi-autonomous driving technologies by at least a half-dozen automakers. The big Audi A8, for one, has Traffic Jam Pilot technology — capable of taking almost complete control in traffic moving at speeds up to 37 mph. It will steer, accelerate, brake and even come to a complete stop and then start back up again.
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Other brands offering various levels of hands-free driving include Mercedes, BMW, Tesla, Volvo, Cadillac and Nissan. The Japanese maker's ProPilot Assist debuts on the second-generation Leaf battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, along with a new "smart" throttle that will actually slow the car to a complete stop in many situations without having to jump to the brake pedal.
Expect to see more and more autonomous technology begin to roll out over the next three to four years, mostly on high-end products. But even base-level vehicles are getting plenty of smart safety tech for 2018.
More Technology = Fewer Accidents
Several recent studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicate that the latest in safety technology, collectively known as ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, are preventing collisions and reducing injuries and fatalities. They're particularly useful in an era when so many motorists are distracted by their smartphones.
ADAS technology can be divided into two categories, starting with systems designed to warn the driver of a potential crash. These include Forward Collision Warning, Lane Departure Warning, and Blind Spot Detection. They all sound an alert, whether that's a beep, a flashing light, a shake of the steering wheel, or even a buzz in your seat.
More advanced systems will intervene if the driver fails to take evasive measures. These includes Automatic Emergency Braking and Lane-Keeping Assist. Volvo this year is adding a system designed to prevent you from making a pass if the car senses oncoming traffic. These technologies will, as needed, apply the brakes or nudge the steering wheel, even without the driver's intervention.
A fair number of those new microprocessors are going into onboard comfort, convenience and infotainment technologies. Bluetooth hands-free phoning and audio are all but ubiquitous on the 2018 models, even on entry-level products. And a growing list of models can now be found offering built-in 4G LTE WiFi hotspots. The latest rear seat entertainment systems — popular on SUVs and minivans — allow passengers in the back to call up their own choice of music or video.
Even Standard Models Get High Tech
Touchscreens also are becoming ubiquitous, even in some of the lowest-priced models on the market, like the new Hyundai Accent. So are navigation systems, though prices have yet to take the sort of tumble we've seen with aftermarket navi technology. But there is an alternative.
Nearly half of all 2018 models will be capable of running either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Essentially, that lets you operate smartphone apps from the car's video display, and if you have a low-cost navigation app, you can use it on the car's screen as if it were a built-in navigation system.
Meanwhile, a fair number of 2018 models will come with a virtual co-pilot like Amazon's Alexa. The voice assistant is now offered on a number of Nissan, Ford, BMW, and Hyundai products, among others. That South Korean carmaker is also integrating Google Home, the search giant's answer to Alexa.
These voice systems can handle not only basic vehicle functions but are gaining additional skills that can take care of things you might want to do when driving to or from the office. In the morning, Ford's version of Alexa will let you order a cup of coffee from a nearby Starbucks. On the way home, skip the cooking and use the system to order a pizza to go. Ford plans to integrate connectivity features like this into as much as 90 percent of the vehicles it sells worldwide by 2020.