Doane Yawger: The wonder of new auto technology

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 6, 2014 

Doane Yawger

MERCED SUN-STAR

Fifty years ago, if someone had told me what features cars of the 21st century would have now, I would not have believed it. Some of the technical advancements of modern motoring still are hard to fathom.

Perhaps the most head-spinning area of technology has to do with driverless cars. And this wizardry is being pioneered right at the Castle Commerce Center, thanks to a Google research project.

It’s often joked that the most dangerous thing about today’s cars is the “nut behind the wheel,” but I think there’s a grain of truth there.

To have vehicles rolling along public streets and highways without someone behind the wheel is still disquieting. It reminds me of the pedal car rides you could take as a kid at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk amusement park years ago. Hold on and let the little car do the driving for you. That’s autopilot to the extreme.

I’m amazed to see cars that can park themselves. Being able to start a car remotely also is a neat trick. It’s a little bit more sophisticated than hand-cranking a Ford Model T roadster.

On the national news the other night, there was mention of something approaching collision avoidance technology that is being developed. This isn’t so far-fetched and could be reality in a couple of years.Motorists might be able to to pay a couple of hundred bucks for systems that warn them when they are too close to other vehicles.

Already some cars have a feature that warns the driver when they are approaching a car ahead of them too fast and initiates braking. There’s one that sounds an alarm when the car strays across the center line into opposing traffic.

We’ve had suspension systems that control skids and turning movements for years now, but they seem to get more refined each year.

It’s still amazing to think that cars have global positioning satellite guidance systems. Or onboard telephone systems. Paper maps are becoming hard to find these days. Phone booths also are becoming an antiquity.

With GPS, I suppose it’s much harder to get lost, but you still hear tales about motorists not being able to get where they need to be because of faulty or misleading information.

I’m easily impressed with these modern innovations, such as when a car can tell its occupants what the outside temperature is. Tires that alert the driver when the air pressure is too low also are amazing. Some cars can be programmed to alert their drivers when oil or water levels are too low.

Who would have “thunk” that cars would have backup cameras that show what’s behind them? That’s a neat safety innovation that’s likely a lifesaver.

Like the Thunderbirds from the mid-1960s, modern Mustangs have sequential turn signals. Heated seats certainly are innovative, along with climate control systems that keep a car’s temperature constant.

Years ago you either had performance cars with big engines and poor gas mileage or economy cars that couldn’t get out of their own way. It was either one or the other. Now you can have fuel economy and rapid acceleration all in one package.

It used to be talk about electric cars was mostly “pie in the sky.” Over the weekend I got passed on Bay Area freeways by a couple of Chevrolet Volt sedans. In Silicon Valley, electric car owners are fighting over the plugs that let them recharge their vehicles at work.

You can be sure that even more technological marvels await motorists in the years ahead.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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