When I was 11, my grandmother bought a new Chrysler Fifth Ave. It was exciting for all sorts of reasons, but what wowed me most of all were the power windows. Gone were the days of making circular motions with the manual window crank. The future was pressing buttons and hearing electronic whirring sounds.
Every year a new wave of luxury cars is released and simple evolutions such as power windows occur. Of course, in the 21st century the advancements are more technical and sound more impressive — Radar Cruise Control upgrading to Distronic Plus Radar Cruise Control. But such impressive names are what luxury is about. “What makes up a luxury car hasn’t changed all that much fundamentally — big engine, good ride, powerful, and good handling — but the technology has become a differentiator,” says Marty Padgett, editor of auto-enthusiast site TheCarConnection.com.
The luxury car segment has become the testing ground of leading edge systems and features. There, car companies can sell new technologies and continue to refine them. When the cost comes down years later, the technology finds its way into other segments of the car market. Many luxury models, for example, have parking assistance, where radar waves trigger an alert telling drivers that they are near another car. This tech is quickly becoming standard and will soon appear in lower tiered car models. Meanwhile, newer technology has already begun to replace it. Lexus’s top sedan, the LS 460, now features the Advanced Parking Guidance System, which uses cameras and other sensors to park the car for you. At this year’s New York International Auto Show Infiniti announced that future models of its top sedan would feature four downward pointing cameras that together will give the driver a composite view of what’s happening around them. At a price of $700 more than standard parking assistance, the Advanced Parking Guidance System is a pricey option that is only found on the top model.
Similarly, Mercedes upgraded its adaptive cruise control in its top tier automobiles. Previously, the feature used only radar and sensors to match the speed of the car in front of you and maintain a desired distance. Now it does that but also detects when the car ahead of you makes a sudden stop and causes your car to brake. “Since it’s so new and expensive the only way to introduce it is in luxury cars–which is kind of how the trickle down technology in the automotive industry works,” explains John Neff, Editor-in-chief of Autoblog.com.
As car companies continue to introduce new technologies in their luxury models, it is a wonder the machines aren’t overcrowded with technology that is more kitsch than killer. But automakers take luxury’s role as incubator seriously. “We try not to throw just any technology on a vehicle. There still has to be enough customer demand — even at the top of the market,” says Ben Mitchell, National Planning Manager for Lexus. The incubation system also extends globally. “There was a less sophisticated version of this system that was developed for use in the Japan-market Prius. It wasn’t sold in the U.S. We were developing a more sophisticated system. And we offer that in our LS 460 as part of our flagship sedan,” says Mitchell. And while the LS may be the only model with parking assist, just like airbags or power windows before it, the technology may become ubiquitous.
The trickle down of technology occurs sideways as well. “What’s making every kind of car standout is in-car entertainment. The entertainment systems started out in mini-vans and you can buy them in a lot of sedans,” says Padgett. Luxury carmakers went further than the DVD players and LCD screens in mini vans. With the implementation of iPod docks, the luxury class is beginning to support digital media. Chrysler now has a new feature called myGIG, which uses a hard drive to store music and movies alongside maps and navigation data. Many cars now support satellite radio, but Chrysler will upgrade this feature in future models to include satellite television.
As successful as these entertainment systems have been, there is another technology with potentially greater demand. “Hybrids, clean-diesels, and emissions are going to drive the next big impulse in technology in vehicles,” says Padgett. Like other types of technology, hybrids provide one more field for automakers to differentiate themselves. “I think you’re going to see more and more companies having variations on hybrid systems and maybe they’ll have diesel engines with hybrids, or maybe internal combustion engines with hybrids. And some day there maybe fuel cells with hybrids,” says Gary S. Vasilash, editor-in-chief of Automotive Design & Production magazine.
But a green evolution is still years off — Ford announced that its new e-Flex hybrid engine would be released in 2009. The irony is that car companies won’t use the efficiency of hybrid engines to get more miles per gallon, but rather to increase the power of luxury cars without driving up the cost. “It’s more efficient than having a 12-cylinder or 10-cylinder engine under your hood, but it isn’t as efficient as a Prius,” says Vasilash.
With $50,000 and $80,000 cars offering driving seats that give massages and climate-controlled interiors, luxury cars have become a world unto themselves. Providing a place for manufacturers to release expensive new technology and for the rest of us to see what the future holds. And as long as the demand for these hi-tech wonders remains, automakers will continue to innovate. “Everyone wants to do a luxury car these days because it’s key to making higher profits,” says Padgett.