The list of electronic aids available on new cars today resembles the menu for a Chinese restaurant. There are devices to help drivers steer, brake, see, change lanes, avoid collisions, and parallel park. The self-driving autonomous car may become reality by 2020, as experts believe, but no one need wait for its GPS systems and laser radar to become commercialized until it gets here. Some high-end new models practically drive themselves.
I'm in favor of anything that makes driving safer, easier, and more efficient. But danger can lurk in unexpected places. What happens if you exchange your Starship Enterprise for an older model or one that is less well-equipped? Expect the cruise control to automatically keep you from colliding with the vehicle in front of you the way your Acura RLX does? Sorry, the car you're driving doesn't have an adaptive system that applies the brakes. CRASH!
With that in mind, I've composed an admittedly very personal list of essential assists that should be in every car. Some are for safety, others provide data, and still others make the ride more comfortable and entertaining. Their common denominator is that I miss them when they aren't there. Your own choices may differ, but here are mine:
1. Push-button ignition/keyless start
I love walking up to a car that unlocks and lights up by itself and then starts without pulling the key out of your pocket or purse. Yes, there is always the danger of forgetting to hand the key over to the parking valet, but that is a small price to pay for the convenience -- especially on a cold day.
2. Rearview camera/backup warning system
Several times, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has delayed rules for rear visibility that would require backup cameras since Congress required them in 2007, but they can't come fast enough for me. It is much safer to watch a screen on your dashboard that has helpful yellow guide lines than to twist your neck over the back of your seat, look around for blind spots, and then try to back up. And don't omit those helpful beep beep beeps that let you know when you've gotten too close.
3. Adaptive cruise control
It's real helpful in traffic when you have it; real dangerous if you think it is there -- and it isn't. Partial versions slow you down while others bring you to a complete stop. Though Lexus brought the first system to the U.S. in 2000, many domestic models didn't begin offering it until a decade later.
4. Blind spot detection
It's a radar-based system that detects vehicles travelling in parallel lanes and uses blinking lights in rear-view mirrors to warn when one is in the blind spot. It's very helpful in preventing you from veering into occupied space, along with the attendant horn-honking and name-calling. More advanced intervention systems apply the brakes to nudge the car out of danger.
5. Navigation system
Manufacturer-installed or aftermarket, they save lots of hassle (except for those odd times when they lead you astray). Even if you know where you're going, you can program the navi to find out what time you are expected to arrive -- and then try to beat the clock.
6. Power tailgate close
Nobody needs to be spared the less-than-onerous task of pulling down the tailgate of an SUV, but it is way more convenient, clean, and quick to push a button -- especially when your arms are full.
On the instrument panel
7. Manual gear selection indicator. Ever find yourself in fourth gear when you thought you were in sixth? The gear selection indicator keeps your revs from bumping into high.
8. Range. Even if your car isn't electric, knowing the range-to-empty helps you plan your fill-ups while you hunt for the discount gas station.
9. Outside Temperature. Even in an era of phones that also act as thermometers, seeing the ambient temperature on your dash in the morning allows you to calibrate your day.
10. Satellite radio
Several hundred channels, impeccable reception, and no commercials. A must for long commutes and road trips.
11. Heated seats
They make cold starts in frigid weather bearable, but only if they warm up quickly -- say, in less than a mile. A heated steering wheel is often available as a package deal.