Behind The Wheel

By Chandra Orr

August 21, 2009 5 min read

If you're looking for luxury, you've found it. From theater-quality sound systems and built-in refrigerators to virtual dashboards and warnings for distracted drivers, the auto world's latest high tech offerings put comfort, convenience and safety in the driver's seat.

"On the whole, innovations continue to capture the attention and imagination of buyers," said Elliot Darvick, manager of programming at Autobytel.com, a leading consumer automotive site.

The latest gadgets and gear don't come cheap -- and many are available only on luxury models -- but if you're looking to wow your passengers and make that morning commute a bit more bearable, check out what automakers have in store for 2010.

MOVIE THEATER SOUND

"To our amazement, the sound system arms race continues," Darvick said.

The new 2010 Jaguar XJ has an astonishing 1,200-watt audio system, with 20 high-end speakers routed through 15 channels of audio processing. To the lay person, that means theater-quality sound on your favorite radio station or a portable screening room in your back seat.

"The Jaguar sound system is a pretty incredible option," Darvick said. "While parked, you will actually be able to watch a DVD in 7.1 surround sound."

On the other end of the spectrum, Bose has developed its Energy Efficient Series set to debut in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. The system combines lighter and smaller components with a power system that uses half the energy without sacrificing sound quality.

"It's a refreshing step in a different direction for sound systems, which have generally been on a tear to see who can utilize the most wattage possible," Darvick explained.

VIRTUAL DASHBOARDS

The Mercedes S-Class was the first to feature a virtual dashboard, and in 2010, the Land Rover Range Rover and the Jaguar XJ jump on board with this pioneering technology.

In the new Range Rover, for example, a 12-inch LCD screen, with virtual dials and a digital information display, replace the traditional instrument panel. Drivers can customize the screen to suit their needs, displaying everything from phone and audio information to GPS navigation and climate control.

"It offers great flexibility for presenting information to the driver," Darvick said.

Mercedes, Land Rover and Jaguar all have plans to unveil dual-view screens in 2010 as well, though it's unclear if the technology will be enabled for the U.S. market due to safety regulations.

"This technology allows the driver to look at the center LCD screen and see a GPS navigation map while a passenger can look at the same screen and, from their vantage, see a DVD movie playing," Darvick explained.

CRASH PREVENTION

"With regards to safety, active pre-crash mechanisms are only growing," Darvick said.

The new Mercedes E-Class sedan will feature a system to detect imminent collisions and apply up to 100 percent of the braking power to reduce the impact -- even at highway speeds.

Lexus, BMW and Acura offer similar systems, and Volvo's City Safety system aids drivers in preventing low speed accidents like rear-end collisions in stop-and-go traffic.

A word of warning, though: This new technology could send repair bills sky high.

"While we welcome the advancement of technology that can detect and mitigate accidents, we cringe when we think about the cost of replacing a bumper that also features cameras, radar, night-vision and other technology, so be prepared to take this into consideration," Darvick said.

ATTENTION ASSISTANCE

Mercedes also aims to prevent driver drowsiness. The new Attention Assist system, which comes standard on the 2010 E-Class, uses smart programming to monitor driver behavior based on 70 parameters. When it senses fatigue, it sends an alert. In other words, no more falling asleep at the wheel.

"We like the Attention Assist because it pairs vehicle hardware that serves other purposes with programming to combat a large problem -- driver fatigue," Darvick said.

THE FLEX FRIDGE

Forget the cooler. The new Ford Flex features a built-in refrigerator to chill out on the go. Unlike systems that merely keep drinks cool, this rear-seat console runs off a compressor just like the fridge in your kitchen.

Capable of chilling a room temperature six-pack of soda to 41 degrees in just a few hours, this is a smart option for avid tailgaters, campers and road trip enthusiasts.

In freezer mode, the unit drops the temperature to 23 degrees, and it's insulated to keep items cold even when the car is not running.

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