Ten years ago, if you showed up at an automotive event in Detroit, chances are you’d have heard a lot of talk about speed and horsepower. And most likely, the majority of the attendees would have been, well, testosterone-fuelled.
But at the 2013 ‘Go Further With Ford’ trends conference this past June in Dearborn, Mich., about half the attendees were women. ‘Wow, tampons!’ said a pleasantly surprised journalist when she spied a basket of free feminine hygiene products as we lined up in the women’s bathroom. That was in between sessions featuring futurists, trendspotters and leaders from game-changing businesses, as well as Ford’s engineers, designers and scientists.
As for the topics: They weren’t really what you’d expect from an automaker. We heard Steve Wozniak, of Apple computers fame, speak about how automobile companies can keep drivers connected in ways that enhance, rather than disrupt, the drive. (‘Technology is supposed to save us from thinking about simple tasks so we have time to think better thoughts.’) Erin Simon, of the World Wildlife Fund, talked about the urgent need for businesses to rethink how they operate. (‘We are taking from this planet faster than we can replace it. If we were farmers, we’d be eating our seeds.’) And Sherry Turkel, a professor of social studies at MIT and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, talked about the rewards and risks of being constantly plugged in. (‘We think the more connected we are, the less lonely we’ll be, and it’s actually the opposite.’)
Culture shift? I’d say so. In the past few years, automakers seem to have woken up to the fact that women are a significant and growing segment of the car-buying population. In Canada, we represent almost half of all licensed drivers. A recent report indicated that women purchase 68 percent of new cars in the U.S., and influence about 80 percent of the purchasing decisions.
And our concerns are slightly different than men’s. Studies show women rate safety, value and fuel efficiency above performance. Read on for more about today’s new cars.
Greening the drive
Climate change has led to a radical shift in the auto industry. Technological advances keep gas guzzling to a minimum; hybrids (a combo of gas and electric) are now commonplace; and all-electric vehicles (EVs) are attracting a small slice of the market. (The reason that slice isn’t bigger, says George Iny, Montreal-based director of the Automobile Protection Association, is that batteries take up to 20 hours to charge.)
Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), on the other hand, have more than proven their worth. They combine a regular gas combustion engine with electricity generated from an on-board generator. The main advantages: They’re very fuel efficient; they don’t have to be plugged in; and you don’t have to worry about running out of power because you can switch to gasoline.
The newest kid on the block’the plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV)’gets plugged in to recharge, but can travel up to 80 kilometres on electricity alone, switching seamlessly to gas as needed.
Note that rebates of up to $8,500 are available when you buy a plug-in electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle, depending on your province; see plugndrive.ca.
You’ll still pay a premium for a hybrid because of the high battery cost. Don’t want that cost? When comparing models, look for these efficiency features that have trickled down to gas-powered vehicles.
Stop-start technology: Your car turns itself off when you stop, to preserve fuel. ‘In bad traffic, that could be 25 percent of the time,’ says Iny. (It turns back on instantly when you step off the brake.)
Multi-speed transmissions: ‘It used to be that vehicle transmissions had four speeds, and occasionally five, in automatics,’ says Iny. Now automatics have up to eight. ‘If you have more speeds, you’re more likely to be in the right one, and that allows the car to work more efficiently, saving fuel.’
Lightweight materials: ‘Since 2010, every time a car is redesigned it’s the same weight or a little bit lighter than the previous design,’ says Iny. The lighter it is, the less power it needs to accelerate.
Low-rolling resistance tires: These tires reduce friction and therefore energy waste.
Direct injection: In fuel-injection engines, this represents a significant advance. An atomizer pumps fuel into the engine, regulating it more precisely and reducing waste.
A glimpse of the green cars in future
Already the Tesla (an EV produced by Silicon Valley engineers)’Steve Wozniak has one’can run for up to 425 kilometres on electricity and be recharged up to 50 percent in a half-hour. The problem: It starts at almost $80,000. But this car is changing the market, Iny believes. By 2025, he predicts, EV batteries will have more storage capability, less weight and faster charge times.
Improved safety features
The widespread use of seat belts cut traffic deaths by about 50 percent. ‘But very few technologies since’including airbags’have gotten those kinds of safety improvements,’ says Iny. Today you’ll find a range of new features that probably didn’t exist last time you looked. The more advanced technologies keep you safer, even stopping crashes before they happen. Watch for makes and models with the following:
Intelligent braking: The car warns you if you’re coming up too quickly on the car in front, and brakes for you if you don’t do so in time. It was introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1998 and is mostly available in high-priced lines such as Audi, Acura and BMW, but it’s trickling down to lower-priced vehicles by Toyota and Subaru.
Active warning: This is what Iny calls ‘a lesser version’ of intelligent braking that has migrated to mid-sized cars like those offered by Ford, Honda and GM, among others. The system warns you (using lights on the dash, an audible beep or vibrating steering wheel), but doesn’t brake for you.
Adaptive cruise control: This tracks cars ahead with a radar sensor, slowing down or speeding up to keep pace.
Lane departure warning: It monitors the lines on the road by camera and lets you know if you’re straying out of your lane.
Cross-traffic alert: A radar sensor alerts you to what is happening behind your car so you don’t back into a stray shopping cart’or a pedestrian.
Blind-spot detection: When a car enters your blind spot, a light or signal appears in your side mirror; there may also be an audible alert.
A glimpse of car safety in the future
Self-driving cars are definitely in the cards, likely within 20 to 30 years, says Iny. (In fact, Google hired engineers to retrofit cars for team members to commute to work). ‘We’re headed for intelligent cars that will speak to each other,’ Iny says. ‘They’ll be aware not only of what’s happening behind the wheel, but of what is going on around them. We’re already in the early phases.’
Okay, these features won’t save the planet, or even your life. But they are pretty neat.
Connectivity: Most manufacturers offer Bluetooth connectivity, but the latest trend is to connect you to the cloud while on the road, so you can surf the web or connect to Facebook (of course, that would be for the passenger or when you are parked). Available mainly in high-end models.
Foot-activated liftgate: This technology makes you wonder: ‘Why hasn’t anyone already come up with this?’ If your arms are full, gently kick your foot under the back bumper and the trunk opens by itself.
Active park assist: Your car literally parallel parks itself. Just pull up, engage the system and let it do all the work.
A glimpse of cool new features in the future
Tomorrow’s cars will have ‘ultra high-speed, high bandwidth connectivity,’ according to U.S.-based Connected World magazine, enabling you to use a host of apps and devices in your vehicle. GM, for example, is working on an ‘intent engine’ that will predict your route and provide options. If you’re on a long-distance drive, for example, it might urge you to refuel at one stop because gas prices are higher at the next one. Honda recently displayed its ‘heads up’ technology that projects info like the names of upcoming streets on your windshield. It may take time before this is available on cars you can buy.