Car designs have evolved considerably over the past century and so have the technologies powering the cars. While designs have changed drastically and automotive technology has evolved beyond our wildest imaginations, we still drive pretty much the same way ancestors did over a century ago: we sit in the driver’s seat with our feet on the pedals, hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road. That will stay constant for decades to come until autonomous car technology reaches such a level of reliability that it goes mainstream.
Generally, vehicle design has tended to incorporate the prevailing design and technological trends and these have gone on to not only shape how cars look and function but also how we drive. In fact, in the decades to come, we won’t even be driving our cars!
In the 60s, long before the dash cams and driver assists, the most advanced tech in a car would have been an AM-FM radio. Although the styling was top-notch with everything sumptuously designed to meet the highest luxury specifications, car tech tended to be overly mechanical.
The evolution of car tech over the decades has been geared towards making the driver do less and less driving and where good driving is hinged not just on the driver’s skill and alertness but on the vehicle’s technology. In fact, the future of the automotive industry is an autonomous one where we will rely on self-driving cars and much of the car cabin will be geared towards making the passenger experience a marvelous one.
From the clunky AM-FM of the 60s, today’s cars incorporate cutting edge tech ranging from telematics to computerised engines. Much of the mechanical operation of the car today is based on powerful electronic sensors and diagnostic mechanisms. The modern driver doesn’t have to worry much about the vehicle’s operation and makes fewer visits to the garage than their counterpart in the 1960s driving a cool futuristically built Thunderbird. Besides, modern cars pack loads of electronic gadgets and tech such as rear cameras, lane change assist or lane departure warning systems, power steering, keyless entry, traction control, electric mirrors, navigation systems, Bluetooth connection, blind spot monitoring, predictive automotive technologies, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, adaptive cruise control, vehicle-as-a-service, anti-lock brake systems (ABS), collision prevention systems and autonomous driving among others.
These car technologies are known as electronic control units (ECU) and they are an integral part of the modern vehicle. Today’s cars are high-tech machines and can have anywhere from 50 to 100 ECUs. These electronic control units not only monitor and regulate the thousands of electronic signals coming from the vehicle and even the road but they can also communicate with one another to coordinate the efficient operation of the vehicle on the road.
All these technologies have made driving considerably easier and safer. A lot of the stuff that a driver in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s had to juggle while holding a steering wheel have now been ‘outsourced’ to a well-tuned electronic and computer systems powering the vehicle, resulting in fewer accidents and road fatalities. They have also reduced vehicle failure. With so many intelligent machines monitoring and regulating the operation of your vehicle, the chances of your car stalling or malfunctioning has been considerably reduced. And with the driver no longer having to juggle a thousand actions in the vehicle, driver fatigue has been reduced considerably.
The proliferation of high-tech technologies has definitely transformed our driving habits for the better.
Technology has changed how we reverse cars
The backup cameras or reverse-parking cameras seem like a ubiquitous feature nowadays. We think that they have always been around. In fact, this technology has only gone mainstream in the past 4 to 5 years. Before the incorporation of reverse-parking camera technology, you had to look over your shoulder and on the left and right side-mirrors to safely reverse your car. Now we can comfortably reverse our cars without turning our heads backwards, an often-uncomfortable maneuver.
Lane departure warning systems (LDWS) made changing lanes a lot safer
Changing lanes or drifting from your lanes in busy high-speed superhighways can be a dicey affair. Even the most experienced drivers make simple human errors like changing lanes without indicating or without looking at the side mirrors to see if there is a high-speed vehicle hurtling down the lane you want to move to. Lane departure warning systems have made changing lanes a lot safer.
The lane departure system warns you when you begin to veer from your lane without a turn signal. LDWS are available in various sophisticated versions. Some will merely warn you when you veer off your lane while others will proactively steer you back to your lane and even center the car in a particular lane unless you put on the turn signals when you plan to change lanes.
Adaptive cruise control to automatically maintain pace
Driving a century ago without all these convenient modern electronic aids must have required a high level of alertness on the road. It is difficult to maintain the same speed over several hours of driving. Without proper concentration on the road, you might find yourself tailgating or even ramming into the cars in front of you.
Just over 10 to 15 years ago, the automotive industry introduced the traditional cruise control that allowed the driver to set a particular cruise speed and the vehicle would maintain it at that until you apply the brake pedals. While this was a considerable improvement over the lack of cruise control in the previous vehicles, it was still a rather manual process.
Adaptive cruise control has improved things considerably for drivers and boosted driving safety. Drivers no longer have to rely on their superhuman driving skills to maintain cruise speed neither do they have to remember to set this manually.
While a driver still has to set a maximum speed with adaptive cruise control (ACC), the mechanism now utilises a radar sensor that tracks the traffic ahead and then locks the vehicle in its lane. The ACC then sends instructions to the vehicle to stay at least a few seconds behind the car in front of you. That is, it allows you to set a follow distance.
The ACC will subsequently adapt the speed of your vehicle according to the speed of the vehicle in front of you. If the car in front of you slows down, this intelligent cruise control will automatically slow down your vehicle to keep pace with the set follow distance without your intervention. ACC works perfectly in both stop-and-go and highway driving. Some ACCs feature an emergency auto braking functionality or a brake alert that enables you to stop your vehicle if the vehicle in front of you stops abruptly.
Using phones in cars might seem like a 21st century thing but car phones are as old as the automotive industry itself. The first practical and less quirky car phones came about in the 1950s. However, it was the 1990s that ushered in the car phone revolution with the explosion in the usage of mobile phones. With it came a dark lining: drivers driving and using mobile phones simultaneously often got distracted and lost control of their cars, causing serious and fatal accidents. Many countries promptly outlawed holding and using a phone while driving.
One of the best innovations to have come for in-car communications and phone use is hands-free phone use via Bluetooth connectivity. Drivers no longer have to hold their gadgets while driving and are able to keep their eyes on the road while still doing stuff like taking phone calls, juggling music playlists or using social media. It is still not recommended but a significant proportion of drivers can’t refrain from it. Wireless connectivity has made things a lot safer.
Advanced driver assist systems
Advanced driver assist systems have created automated mechanisms that let the vehicle instantly react to hazards and also curb driver fatigue which is a major cause for accidents. Some of these systems are now so advanced that they can even park the vehicle for you. Some of the driver assist systems include: –
- Lane Departure Warning Systems
- Lane-Keep Assists
- Reverse Brake Assists
- Adaptive Cruise Control
We have discussed some of these above. You may not necessarily get all of these in one package. Vehicles will normally have a few of these standalone options. However, when you can get at least 2 or 3 of these driver assists, the safety impact on your driving can be immense.
Some of the latest vehicle models coming out of the assembly lines now feature 360-degree cameras. This is invaluable to helping you avoid collisions, particularly in bigger vehicles such as SUVs. They come in handy in the parking lots, giving you a real-time bird’s eye view of your vehicle and ensuring you don’t hit anything while parking. Normally, you’d have to rely on a human parking attendant or guide when parking in tight spaces.
360-degree cameras equip the vehicles with cameras on all sides and give you a precise and real-time top-down view of the vehicle relative to your immediate surroundings. This can save you from minor accidents and dents which are likely to increase your insurance premiums.
Dash cam technology is modifying driver behaviour
Unlike the electronic control units that are integrated into the vehicle mechanism at the time of manufacture, car dash cams have to be purchased as a separate car accessory by the vehicle owner. Car dash cams don’t control any aspect of the car mechanism via signals. It merely records the happenings on the road. However, its mere presence in the car has helped change some of our driving habits and those of other road users. Car dash cams create a greater sense of awareness behind the wheels and cultivates a sense of responsibility that is good for all road users. The mere thought that your actions are being recorded can be powerful deterrence against some reckless behaviour on our roads.
The bottom line
With technologies radically transforming how our cars work, our driving behaviours is also changing alongside it. Some of these changes are ‘tangible’ and have a direct bearing on our driving. Some are more abstract and entail mental adjustments. The modern driver is still sitting in the driving seat, pressing the pedal and holding the steering wheel but their experience is unlike that of their counterpart a century earlier. The tech in the vehicle is doing a lot more stuff.
However, at the end of the day, these technologies are still merely a driver’s aids, as useful and convenient as they are. Ultimately, you have to drive the vehicle using your skill, grasp of the road rules and regulations, alertness, and proficiency. Good technology in the vehicle should not treated as a substitute for the need to actually drive the vehicle safely and in accordance with road rules and regulations.