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For Tech’s Sake: Are These Vehicle Bells, Whistles Improvements?

The auto industry may be on the skids, but technological “advances” keep on coming. So while we are driven to distraction with in-dash tweeting and all manner of GPS and fuel efficiency diagnostics, Fast Company took a look back at some tech that debuted in the past few years to see how those innovations have (or haven’t) held up. SmartCar’s Paddle Shifters

The auto industry may be on the skids, but technological “advances” keep on coming. So while we are driven to distraction with in-dash tweeting and all manner of GPS and fuel efficiency diagnostics, Fast Company took a look back at some tech that debuted in the past few years to see how those innovations have (or haven’t) held up.

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SmartCar’s Paddle Shifters

smart car paddle shift

How they work: Manual transmissions ordinarily mean a 5-speed stick shift on the floor. In the Smart Fourtwo, the shifter(s) are paddles on the steering wheel. The recent upgrade to the transmission software has made it possible to go from the automatic mode to standard just by holding the right shifter in for a second longer than one would for a shift. So, no longer does the driver need to take the manual gear shift and move it from mode to mode to change shifting options.

The problem: Other cars you’ll spot this in? Ferrari F430s and Formula 1 race cars. Askmen.com offered a shriveling observation, “You just don’t need this feature in a 71-horsepower car. Another 71 horsepower, please, yes; paddle shifters, no.”

What drivers say: Shanna Trenholm, a former moderator at the national SmartCar forum, begs to differ. “I find when I drive, especially if I need to get out in traffic, I will change from automatic to standard mode with the tap of the paddle shifter. It’s quite responsive, and fun,” she says.

The bottom line: Trenholm believes the feature keeps the driving active, “something that most people traveling in two-ton Barcaloungers-on-wheels forget that driving should be. We should be awake and aware when operating a motor vehicle, not lulled into relaxation with all the comfort features of a living room.”

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Lexus Advanced Parking Guidance System

lexus 460

How it works: The Lexus LS 460 L’s Intuitive Parking Assist/Advanced Parking Guidance System (APGS) was both a design milestone and a leap forward for automated cars. Drivers who want to parallel park simply position their car side-by-side another, ahead of the selected space. Then, put the car in reverse to activate the backup camera. By pressing okay, braking, and taking their hands off the steering wheel, he backup camera, ultrasonic sensors, and electric motors in the vehicle’s power steering system maneuver the car into the space automatically.

The problem: The base price of Lexus LS 460 that comes with the Advanced Parking Guidance System is over $65,000. One wonders how often the owner of a luxury vehicle finds it necessary to personally shoehorn their sedan into a curbside space. According to Brad Moon, general sales manager of Lexus of Greenville, the feature is not as popular in South Carolina as it would be in other places. “There’s not much need for parallel parking here,” says Moon adding that the biggest hurdle is consumer mindset. “People are leery to let the thing back in by itself,” he observes.

What drivers say: “The ‘advanced parking guidance system’ and the ‘intuitive parking assist’ were anything but,” wrote Jay Shoemaker in a review for The Truth About Cars. “Aside from being slow and complex, there were occasions where I felt obligated to intercede, sensing imminent danger.”

The bottom line: Over at Carconnection.com, Bengt Halvorson says simply, “some will find it helpful, but to others it’s a gimmick,” and advised skeptics to watch a few YouTube videos and decide for themselves.

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Ford Flex’s Fridge

ford flex fridge

How it works: In another move to make commuting as cushy as sitting in your living room, the Ford Flex offers an honest-to-goodness refrigerator as an add-on (around $800) to the vehicle which has a base sticker price of just over $28,000. A compressor creates chilled liquid that can lower the temperature of a beverage 41 degrees F in two and a half hours. It has a freezer option that can chill to 23 degrees. The whole thing can hold about 7 12-ounce cans.

The problem: The size and shape. It fits between the second row of seats and it is small. Popular Mechanics observes, “the cooled area has a curved shape that will keep some items from fitting.”

The bottom line: Michael Anselmo, general manager of Five Star Ford in Scottsdale says that while the fridge isn’t selling like hotcakes, he estimates it is in about 60 percent of the Flexes he sells. “It’s mostly for soccer moms who want a sharper looking car than a minivan,” he says, the fridge just facilitates carrying water for the team.

What drivers say: Stocking up on beverages for his family on their 10-day trek through the withering heat of the southwest, Kevin Heslin of New York says, “I wasn’t convinced it was all that useful. It definitely was too small for our vacation in Arizona, and I don’t think it would be of much use on short trips either when the drive would be finished before the drink would have time to warm up.”

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Prius Fuel Efficiency Graphing

Prius gague 2010

How it works: An internal gauge acts as an energy monitor and provides fuel consumption history and a hybrid system indicator, along with the odometer with twin tripmeters and cruise information that measures average fuel economy, average speed and distance to empty.

The problem: With the recent flap in The New York Times about automakers and high-tech companies putting sophisticated Internet-connected computers in the front seats of vehicles, the eco-gauge on the Prius seems like small potatoes. But some argue that in a car that is more about efficiency than performance, reading the gauge and “playing the fuel economy game” is more than distracting.

What drivers say: Caissie St. Onge, a Prius owner in Westport, CT, doesn’t agree. She says, “Once you learn the driving habits that negatively affect your mileage, you get in the habit of doing them by feel and don’t need to look at the screen.”

The bottom line: It’s not really an issue in the 2010 model as the graph is now in the dash-top instrument panel and no longer on the navigation screen.

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Run-Flat Tires

Mercedes benz run-flat tire

How they work: Like their name, run-flats allow drivers to continue to drive despite air loss. The tires are self-supporting with very stiff sidewalls which create a hard ride. BMW 3 series, Toyota Sienna and Chevrolet Corvette are some of the cars that sport them and Dunlop, Bridgestone, and Michelin are manufacturers.

The problem: The technology that keeps the tire up when conventional ones would be sinking is not under manufacturer’s warranty for very long –around 20,000 miles as opposed to 30,000-90,000 on others. When a new set is necessary after limited mileage, it comes with a hefty price tag of $800 or more.

What Drivers Say: Not one of the tech “advances” evoked as much vitriol as this one. In fact, several sources asked not to be named (probably because they were cursing so much). One who wasn’t shy about making his point was Jeffrey Saad, chef and finalist on the Next Food Network Star. “My Mini had one” Saad tweeted. “Drove home at 60 mph and didn’t realize it was flat until I got home.” Saad was lucky. Being able to get home is a good thing. But if not if you exceed 50mph, the manufacturers’ instruct. There are several reports of tires blowing out and catching on fire.

The Bottom Line: Michelin discontinued its PAX run-flats, but others are still available. Consumer Reports remains optimistic, saying their safety trumps any issues and technology is getting better while the price is coming down.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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