It's a wonder how my folks ever made it through all those long road trips in the family car.
We would try to spot as many different license plates as we could or play the I Spy game. Today, there are all sorts of distractions, from portable DVD players to game systems - and the in-car technology is about to get even better.
As everything goes mobile with iPads, iPhones and other devices, it's only a matter of time before this technology is fully integrated into our cars. The car will become an extension of your home or office - a place where you can do business, listen or send a voice-controlled instant message or e-mail, update your Facebook or Twitter, and eventually have full access to the Internet.
In a select number of cars, a more sophisticated infotainment center already has surfaced, offering a mix of information about the car, navigation and more plus entertainment features. Ford has a new platform called MyFord Touch, which debuted in the 2011 Ford Edge and Explorer.
It's a 7.5-inch unit in the middle of the console that takes care of navigation, climate, radio controls, MP3 player, heated seats, accesses your smartphone and can even tell you why that pesky check engine light came on.
"You do all of this with a touch of a button on your steering wheel," Walt Skube at Landmark Ford says. "When you first see it, it looks a little overwhelming, a little space-aged, but it's very easy to use and you realize that the moment you start using it."
These systems also offer voice control, and the technology has advanced to recognize conversational speech. Like Ford, BMW has a similar system in place that helps keep your eyes on the road instead of the unit.
"Voice recognition has come a long way," says Nick Drum, BMW new vehicle sales manager at Isringhausen. "It started out 20 years ago being crude and almost unusable to today being very, very good."
BMW ConnectedDrive features a greater emphasis on portable devices, offering an on-board mobile office that displays both e-mail and text message headlines - and will even read them aloud while you're driving. You can even draft a text message or e-mail with voice recognition.
There also are a variety of safety features available now available in more cars, not just the high-end models. One example is the lane departure warning system.
Here's how it works in the BMW: a camera mounted between the rear-view mirror and windshield keeps an eye on a road's markings. If you start to drift into another lane without a turn signal, the steering wheel vibrates as a warning.
This technology is available not only in BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and Audi but also Buick, Ford, Honda and Toyota. All work similarly, though each system alerts you in slightly different ways - warning lights, beeps or steering wheel vibration.
The new cruise control systems also have gotten more intelligent, monitoring traffic ahead and maintaining a selected following distance, even in stop-and-go traffic.
"You can set the thing at 100 mph right outside here (on Jefferson Street) and it'll only go as fast as the flow of the traffic. It'll even come to a complete stop," Drum says.
The Mercedes system, distronic plus adaptive cruise control, uses two onboard radar systems that can use up to 40 percent of your vehicle's braking power to slow your vehicle all the way to a stop, and then bring you up to the full speed of traffic flow with a tap of the accelerator.
"It's hard to trust at first, but it does work, and very well," says Kent Hill, a Mercedes-Benz sales associate at Isringhausen.
However, while these systems are sophisticated, Kent adds, you still have to stay vigilant behind the wheel.
Mercedes has developed a system that uses steering sensors to establish a driving profile unique to the driver; this is established within the first 20 minutes behind the wheel. The system, called Attention Assist, observes steering behavior of the driver across 70 different parameters, looking for erratic corrections. When a driver becomes drowsy, he tends to swerve in and out of his lane, resulting in over-correction and possible loss of control of the vehicle. Once the system recognizes this pattern of behavior, it emits an audible and visible warning - in the form of a coffee cup icon - and suggests it's time for a break.
Attention Assist only serves as a warning system, and doesn't automatically slow down the vehicle. However, as it is designed to recognize fatigued driving patterns, it should notice if you've been sticking your head out the window just to stay awake.
Story published Friday, May 6, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 3 )