If you're still thinking that the latest new cars are all about styling, features, horsepower, and fuel mileage, think again.
All those are still important facets, but in-car electronics is now the fastest growing area of automotive technology, as automakers scramble to one-up each another with new options for navigation, communication, information, and entertainment on the road.
And now that carmakers can update their systems by downloading new features and updates, the automotive industry is learning to move at the speed of consumer electronics, breaking free of the traditional five-year development cycle in favor of what can seem like weekly advancements from some manufacturers.
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Built-in systems like Acura Link, Cadillac CUE, Chrysler UConnect, MyFord and MyLincoln Touch, GM OnStar, Hyundai BlueLink, Toyota Entune, and others offer a variety of connectivity and convenience options, from checking the weather in advance of a trip, to making a restaurant reservation and navigating your way to dinner.
The downside is that some of these systems can be frustratingly complicated and distracting to use, although many manufacturers wisely limit accessibility to some functions while the vehicle is in motion. What's worse is that as systems have grown more sophisticated, some previously simple controls—such as adjusting the temperature or changing a radio station—have ended up being incorporated into touch screens, and may involve more steps than simply turning a knob. However, most systems allow at least some voice controls, which enable you to keep your eyes on the road during complicated tasks like phone dialing or song selection.
Many systems leverage your smartphone to access music, navigation, and other functions, which makes it easier to keep all your information updated and keep your music library and contacts with you for hands-free operation. But that can mean burning up precious data minutes, unless you have an unlimited plan.
As automotive electronics have begun advancing faster than you can say "microchip," we've added a section to our road tests to cover the latest infotainment developments in all new cars we test.
The bottom line
As automotive electronics have grown more complex, it's important to spend more time familiarizing with systems in the showroom before you buy. Make sure you understand how they work and that the system in any car you're considering is one you can live with today and down the road. And once you've experimented with the car parked, take it out for a test drive to see how easy it is to use on the road.
For more information, read our full report "Connect with your car."