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Car technology continues to set lasting standard

Compared with consumer electronics, car tech may seem ancient. But it's still cutting-edge in many respects.

By Douglas Newcomb Feb 4, 2013 11:27AM

2013 Range Rover. Photo courtesy of Land Rover.As I cautiously crawled over rocks last week in a $100,000-plus Range Rover, I was thinking about how incredible car technology can be. And this was about an hour after sure-footedly driving through a foot of fresh snow on a dirt trail at 7,000 feet, while in a heated leather seat with a massage function.

Sure, the new 2013 Range Rover Supercharged I was driving in the Utah desert at a press event is an obvious and costly testament to the current state of automotive technology. But there are plenty of less pricey examples. It's a fact: Technology in today's cars can actually trump the toys from Apple and other tech titans.

With the 150th birthday of Henry Ford, the acknowledged forefather of the automobile and automotive technology, it’s important to remember in these tech-obsessed times that the car once represented the pinnacle of personal technology. In some ways, it still does.

I’ve taken the automotive industry to task for failing to keep up with consumer electronics and, in the case of navigation, charging a premium for outdated technology. I’ve pointed out how car buyers are frustrated by this technology lag as well as the incompatibility between the devices they buy and the vehicles they drive.

While automakers have shortened their product-production lead times, unlike in consumer electronics, it still takes years rather than months to bring a new vehicle to market. And the automotive industry is just starting to embrace software upgrades, which have been standard practice in cutting-edge consumer electronics for years.

Some automakers have also started to recognize that certain technologies are outside of their primary business and are partnering with prominent tech trendsetters -- Ford with Facebook and BMW with Google, for example -- to bring new features into the car quicker. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, both Ford and GM announced that they’re opening their dashboards to outside developers in an effort to create applications, in the same the way that portable-device platforms such as iOS and Android have spurred innovation.

There's role reversal, too. One long-term trend that consumer electronics copied from automakers is giving customers more each year for less money. Think of how features such as cruise control and power windows have trickled down so that they’re now available on even entry-level cars.

Probably the two best examples of how car technology is benefiting drivers -- as well as society at large -- is with fuel efficiency and safety. While the internal-combustion engine is ancient technology by almost any standard, automakers have made great strides in refining it to squeeze more miles out of every gallon of gas -- and this is not even considering hybrid and other alternative-fuel technologies.

Active safety “driver assist” systems that use a combination of cameras and sensors are becoming increasingly sophisticated -- and more common on cars in a variety of price ranges. And while Google gets a lot of attention for its autonomous vehicle program, most major automakers have been developing similar technology for years. Today's advanced driver-assist systems will eventually lead to fully autonomous vehicles that average people can buy in the coming decade.

But what makes modern cars stand above all the gadgets and smartphones we love? Everything in the electronics industry is considered disposable, as people don’t expect to keep them long-term or even expect them to work beyond a couple of years -- and their prices are commensurate with this expectation. A car and its complex technology has to last for many years, even decades. Incredibly, it usually does.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

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