Technology in Luxury Cars: Past, Present and Future
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The term [Luxury Vehicle] suggests a vehicle with higher quality equipment, better performance, more precise construction, comfort, higher design, technologically innovative modern, or features that convey an image, brand, status, or prestige, or any other 'discretionary' feature or combination of them.” -Wikipedia
The definition described by wikipedia is concise and effective. However, what wikipedia says we think of as a luxury automobile could be, basically, anything. Varying on one end from something as vapid as “status” all the way to something as nuts-and-bolts as “more precise construction.” The reality of the situation is that our perception of what makes a car luxurious has changed over time.
In the early days of motoring, ease of operation was what separated a luxury car from all others. For instance, a Model T had a starting handle that could sometimes cause injury or worse to the operator. The controls for operating the Model T were very complicated and downright uncomfortable to use. The Model T's engine had a distinctive putt putt noise and dirty emissions. Contrast this with a Detroit Electric. Their marketing focused on no starting handle, smooth and easy acceleration, quiet operation and no fumes. Luxury gas powered pre-war vehicles often had very large eight-cylinder engines. The buyers of these cars didn't necessarily buy them for their speed but instead for their torque. It turns out that luxury car owners weren't very interested in shifting. Before the invention of the automatic transmission, you could buy a car with a large engine, put it into 3rd gear and go. The torque from the engine meant shifting wasn't necessary. As time went on, the automatic transmission was introduced, then power steering, power brakes, and power windows. All of these features meant that these pre-war luxury vehicles were far easier to drive than the Model T and other affordable vehicles of the time.
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After the war, luxury car manufacturers knew that many of the pre-war luxury features had trickled down to affordable cars. In order to maintain their luxury status they would have to change the public's perception of what luxury was in a car. This is when automakers started using advanced technology to separate their luxury cars from all other cars on the market. As this is before the transistor, we're not talking computer technology, but technology nonetheless. In the late 1950's, Cadillac introduced the “Autronic Eye.” It was later renamed “Guide-Matic.” Guide-Matic was marketing name for a feature called automatic dimming headlights. This system allowed the driver to keep the high beams on while driving on the numerous, and often unlit, suburban roads. When an oncoming car approached, the sensor would be energized by their headlights and dim your headlights to normal beams so as not to blind the oncoming driver. Luxury cars of this time also started offering cruise control, self-leveling suspension, power seats. Heck, Cadillacs and Lincolns in the sixties even disengaged the parking brake when the driver put the car into Drive or Reverse.
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Status was also a big part of the luxury vehicle after the war. Most American men could be defined as a “Cadillac Man” or a “Lincoln Man.” It didn't matter what these two companies made, every family wanted one in the driveway. Besides brand, there were other forms of status. Vehicle size was a biggie. Its no accident that Cadillacs and Lincolns were usually the biggest cars on the road. Ford and GM both knew that size was a luxury feature and therefore saved the biggest cars for their most luxurious brands. Another status feature of luxury vehicles was chrome. Chrome reached its peak in about 1958 with Buick or in 1959 with Cadillac. From that point, the amount of chrome on most cars was slowly reduced. However, there were still pounds and pounds of of the stuff all throughout the sixties. It wasn't just on the outside. Part of the charm of the luxury vehicle was copious amounts of chrome on the interior. Unfortunately, while Ford, GM and Chrysler were stuffing big boats with loads of Chrome, Mercedes was working on changing our expectations. In the late 1960's, if you had walked into the boss' office at GM or Ford and told him that Mercedes Benz and BMW would dominate the luxury market 40 years from now, they would have laughed you out of their building. The boss knew that BMW was making sports cars that weren't even considered competition. Mercedes was building luxury cars but they were smaller with smaller engines and less power. On top of that, they were routinely more expensive than Cadillacs and Lincolns. It goes without saying that these executives didn't see the changing tide in time.
Mercedes was taking the charge in changing our perception of what made a luxury car luxurious and they were making damn sure that luxury wasn't defined by obese cars with lots of chrome and flashy features. Instead, they were showing us what precision brought to the table. A Mercedes didn't have Guide-Matic or an auto-disengaging parking brake and they were smaller, lighter and had a smaller engine. Yet, the engine produced more power, the car moved faster and had more interior space than the cheaper Lincolns and Cadillacs.
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Mercedes solidified their position as the standard for engineering quality in 1963 when they introduced the 600. The The Mercedes 600 was designed as a showcase of everything that could be done to make a car luxurious. There are bits of this excessive obsession everywhere in the 600. We all know that electric motors make noise, so the 600 used hydraulics to operate the seats, sunroof, windows and trunk lid. Because of this, all of these features operated in near silence. The hydraulically powered self-closing trunk lid is so quick, quiet and smooth that it makes the contemporary electric closing trunk lids look and sound ancient. And yes, the cocktail cabinet in the center console is air-conditioned to keep your drinks cool.
Everything on this car was superb; just look at those door jams! But the 600 wasn't just about unparalleled luxury, the automotive engineering also raised the bar. Cadillacs were lucky to do 100 mph. The 600 was designed to cruise at 100 mph and could get up to 125. The 600 was incredibly expensive. Actually, it was the most expensive car in the world in 1963. Despite this, the 600 proved to the world what could be done. As time went on, Mercedes was able to bring most of this innovation into a price range that competed with Cadillac and Lincoln. This is when they started to make an impact in the luxury car market. That plus a series of fuel crunches, emissions laws and safety regulations allowed Mercedes to watch as Lincoln and Cadillac fell apart. The domestic luxury brands couldn't adjust, public preference shifted and the precise Europeans took over.
The 1970's and 1980's saw the simultaneous decline of the post-war luxury vehicle and ascent of the transistor and the integrated circuit. For the first time, computers were being used in cars to keep track of various sensors in order to adjust the engine for best efficiency. This all happened live and was far more accurate than the old, mechanical, systems. It was inevitable that these electronics would soon start monitoring sensors, not just for the engine, but for the interior of the car and its occupants. As more sensors were being added to cars, we got more luxury features. Cars started getting rain sensing windshield wipers, dynamic headlights, laser guided cruise control, air bags and a myriad entertainment options for their occupants. As luxury brands started putting more computers and technology into their cars, public perception was, again, shifted. Precisions engineering didn't define luxury any more. It was also about technology and features. Buying a luxury car now can be very similar to buying business software in the nineties. There is a matrix of features. But instead of the matrix listing things like “Mail Merge,” it lists “Keyless Entry,” and "Automatic Climate Control." The introduction of these advanced and customizable features is the reason I'm writing this article. You've seen them in the magazines and the advertisements. You've ridden in them and you've been confused by them. The electronic features that we want and expect, pose a great challenge to the luxury motorist. That challenge is buttons.
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This is the interior of the Porsche Panamera. This car along with the Aston Martin Rapide, Mercedes S Class, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ and many others all have the same problem. There are buttons everywhere! Look at this photo. The driver has buttons on his left, on the entire center console, on the dashboard, on the instrument cluster and above him by the mirror. This poses two main problems. First, and most obvious, is how can a driver possibly be expected to know what all of these buttons do and to use them while trying to drive a car? Second, and more important for this article, since when were hundreds of buttons everywhere considered luxurious?
Look at all of our most luxurious items in magazines. Are luxurious sofas covered in buttons? Are luxurious watches covered in buttons? Is luxurious jewelry covered in buttons? No, no and no. I propose that even luxurious technology has fewer buttons than mainstream technology. For instance the original iPod vs the Creative Nomad Jukebox. Thats 11 buttons versus only 5 on the iPod. If luxurious sofas, watches, jewelry and even luxurious technology are relatively button free, how is it that all popular luxury cars are full of so many buttons? We expect the features that modern luxury cars have. Currently the only way to allow the driver to control so many advanced features is through lots of buttons. However, that doesn't mean that smart people at big car companies aren't working on solving this problem.
iDrive and Infotainment Systems
BMW seems to have thought about this sooner than any other luxury car brand. With the launch of the redesigned 7 Series in 2002, they introduced iDrive. iDrive was an attempt to consolidate most buttons in a car into a display and clickwheel-wheel like controller (Interesting to note that this was lunched virtually simultaneously with the iPod and its innovative click wheel) on the center console. Whether the iDrive was head of its time or wasn't implemented properly is up for debate, the fact is that it failed. Owners of the new cars were not fans of iDrive. They found performing simple tasks like adjusting the climate control to be overly complicated. To resolve this, BMW made a habit of adding more buttons year by year. Eventually the dash of the 7 Series looked like any luxury car dashboard, full of buttons. BMW knew that iDrive-like systems were the future so they never removed it, they simply made it so all the systems could be controlled with iDrive and some could also be controlled with hardware buttons. Also, to be 100% fair, from what I hear, the current iDrive systems are pretty good. However, the fact remains that the inside of a of a modern BMW is no different than any other luxury car. Its full of confusing buttons. Since iDrive, most other car brands have developed similar infotainment systems. They all have similar weaknesses. Adi Robertson highlighted Scott Hanselman's excellent article on why infotainment systems don't work in their current form. This next comment is completely unrelated, but the blue-ish light emitted from LCD screen does not complement your skin complexion. When you're driving at night, it would be better if your face were illuminated by something closer to candlelight so that other motorists could admire your handsome features.
Ford Sync is probably the highest rated voice control system in production, but it still requires that you, essentially, memorize a list of commands. Thats no different than having buttons everywhere. The driver still needs to have innate knowledge of how to work the system. The current voice command systems are great if the driver is so inclinded to learn how to use them. They allow the driver to keep his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road. However, I would argue that, for this reason, voice command is more of a safety feature than a luxury feature.
Reduced Feature Count
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Rolls Royce has a far different approach to luxury. Despite Rolls Royce being owned by BMW, they've taken, dare I say, a decidedly British approach to luxury. This dashboard is by no means button-free, but compared to the Panamera's dashboard above, it looks positively refined. With the Panamera you get the Nomad Juke Box, with the Rolls Royce you are getting the iPod. The iPod had fewer features than competitive MP3 players and the same is almost certainly true for the Rolls Royce (of course I can't check because the Rolls Royce promotional materials have no features or options lists). The people at Rolls Royce know that less tech means fewer buttons. Clearly, the designers at Rolls Royce believe that fewer buttons make for a more luxurious experience and I'm inclined to agree with them. But here lies the problem. Its not realistic to think that luxurious cars are all going to start removing features. Especially when most owners really like automatic windscreen wipers and laser guided cruise control. So how can we have all the features we have now and all the features that will be, while still maintaining a luxurious experience?
In the Top Gear comparison of the BMW 760Li and the Mercedes S63 AMG, James May, whom I trust on topics such as luxury, knocked the Mercedes for having a split personality. On one hand, it was a luxurious limousine with more rear passenger leg room than front driver leg room. On the other hand, it featured an in-dash lap timer. James makes the argument that these two features shouldn't be in the same car; I agree. Mercedes should remove the in-dash lap timer from their 18 foot long, four door, luxury sedan. But how can I say that after complaining that Rolls Royce and others removing features won't work forever because customers actually desire these highly sophisticated features? Building purpose-built vehicles is different than removing features. Luxury car features should be in luxury cars, but narrowing the featureset to features that make the luxury car better at being a luxury car is essential to eliminating excess buttons.
"Why Would You Turn It Down‽"
The M6 features a 500 BHP V10, but, by default, it only puts out 400 BHP. BMW has added a button with an M on it that switches the engine from “P400” to “P500” or “P500S.” These are the three modes that BMW has created for the engine. P400 has 400 BHP, P500 has 500 BHP and P500S has 500 BHP and sharpened throttle response. It should also be noted that this button can do other things because its completely customizable. I know, spending time customizing buttons sounds really luxurious to me too. Let me proclaim that this button is absolutely useless. To quote Richard Hammond from the Top Gear review of the M6, “Why Would You Turn It Down?” Hammond is absolutely right on this. Keep in mind that the M6 is the fastest 6 series BMW makes and its supposed to be a powerful and luxurious grand tourer. If the driver only wanted 400 BHP they could easily have saved their cash and bought a normal 6 series. Instead, the customer spent extra so their M6 could go from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds. Yet, as Richard Hammond comedically demonstrates, there are simply too many buttons that control the performance features of this car. Because of all the buttons, the presenters spend more time setting up the car for its 4.7 second run than driving it. All of these buttons were added to allow the driver to “turn it down.” Some might make the argument that saying this is like saying you shouldn't be able turn down a loud stereo because you spent the extra cash to get the louder one. If BMW can figure out a control as simple and elegant as a volume knob to control all the performance features of the M6, all the power to them. So far that hasn't been the case. Right now, there are at least 4 controls for the performance settings of the M6 and that's just too confusing. If BMW had come to the conclusion that customers buying the M6 wanted an M6 and not a normal 6 series, they could have saved themselves a lot of time (and their customers a lot of confusion) by not adding as many of these performance adjustment controls.
Don't get me me wrong, this is not simple. I just used several hundred words, and several minutes of your time, to justify removing a single button with an M on it. Very tough decisions will have to be made by the engineering and design teams at these car companies. However, if its done right, the experience of having all the controls necessary for your car and none that aren't would be superb. Remember, that this is what so few companies are famous for. Its not about what you add, but what you take away.
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The top of line Mercedes models feature “Attention Assist.” This system monitors the driver for signs of drowsiness. The computers monitor 70 different parameters that range from a driver's steering actions, total drive time and even cross-wind strength. The system detects if the driver might be getting drowsy after a long drive and encourages him to pull over. Mercedes promotes this as a safety feature however, systems like this are not far off from monitoring the actual physiological condition of the driver. Ford has already created a prototype heart rate monitoring seat. Soon, cars will be able to determine the heart rates, stress levels, comfort levels and other physiological parameters of the driver. What this means is that soon, luxury cars will be able to tell if we're apprehensive or tired or stressed out. The car will know whether we're hot or cold. Hopefully, based on that knowledge, it will be able to adjust various car systems without any driver input at all.
Knowing the driver's stress level could eliminate one of the controls that annoys me most. As lazy as this makes me sound, rain sensing wipers are one of the best features I've ever experienced in a luxury car. They turn on automatically, they speed up with heavier rain and they turn off when the weather clears up. The problem with BMW's implementation is that the automatic wipers have a sensitivity dial. This control allows people like me to turn the sensitivity all the way down to reduce the speed of the wipers while allowing someone else to turn it all the way up to make sure there is hardly ever rain on the windshield. While it could be argued that this dial is uneccesary, I would find it rather annoying if the wipers were always moving too fast for my liking and others would find it stressful and dangerous if too much rain was getting on the windshield. If the car was able to monitor the stress level of the driver, it could dynamically adjust the sensitivity of the wipers. If it detects the stress level of the driver going up, it could slowly increase the wiper sensitivity until the driver feels more at ease. This sounds like a lot of work just replace one control. However, these driver monitors would be used to replace many controls. They would also represent a new paradigm in driver car interaction.
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As I said earlier, current voice control systems still require that the driver have an innate knowledge of how to work the system. Technology like IBM's Watson combined with technology like AT&T's Watson (thats kind of a confusing naming choice by one of these companies) could be a solution. The IBM tech understands and finds answers to questions given to it in plain english text. The AT&T tech takes spoken voice and converts it into plain english text. See how the two could be connected? By combining these two types of technology, the driver doesn't need to memorize a list of commands, the car will understand context and convert that into actions.
Implementing this in a car would be very interesting. Imagine two approaches. In the first approach, there is a more conventional voice control setup. The car still understands plain English and context so the driver doesn't have to memorize a list of commands. But the way the driver starts the dialog is by saying “computer” or “car” or pushing a button or something conventional like that. Only then does the car listen for words and convert them into commands. This method of interaction would seem “safe” to the driver. And by safe I mean, that computers monitoring too much of our lives can be a little frightening. And while, technically, the computer would be listening to every word you said so that it knows when you say “computer,” it doesn't seem that way to the driver. The driver only thinks the computer is listening once the listen command is issued.
The second approach would be harder to implement but potentially more powerful. If the car computer was listening to your conversation constantly and picking up context and nuance along the way, it would be able to dynamically adjust the climate control and other parts of the car without you even issuing commands. I honestly don't quite know how this would work. This is such optimistic future-thought. It would require years of research and development. The inner sceptic in me just imagines the driver on his cell phone describing how hot it was in Brazil and the car turning the AC on full blast because it heard the word “Hot.” Obviously, that would be a terrible experience. Hopefully a smart group of people are already several years into the R&D for the technology so that the mistake made above doesn't happen in real life. However, to put this implementation in a car would require that the customer base for these luxury vehicles be comfortable with the computer listening in all the time. We just have to hope that by the time this technology is being implemented that fewer and fewer people in the target demographic for a 7 series BMW will have seen or read “2001.”
Some of these solutions are a bit optimistic. We all know what its like when the computer tries to figure out what we want for us and then gets it wrong. But, I'm going to maintain my optimistic and forward-thinking ground. I really do think that sooner, rather than later, computers will be smart enough to figure out what we're thinking and make adjustments based on that. I really do think that sooner, rather than later, we will be holding conversations with our computers. I really hope that one day, instead of trying to get my coworkers together so we can bounce some ideas around, I can do the initial bouncing with my computer. The speed at which a computer can find things related to ideas thrown at it would be so much quicker than a human, who can only speak from personal experience. But I'm going off topic. So while some of these suggestions are a bit optimistic and would require years of research and development and only manage to do something as simple as removing an M button or a windshield wiper sensitivity dial, it really is worth it. This level of polish turns a Nomad Jukebox into an iPod. This level of thought turns an EZ Boy into an Eames Lounge Chair. This level of care is what makes something special. And, at the end of the day, a luxury car should be something special.
About the Author: Jeffrey Bergier is educated in industrial design, working in user experience, has ridiculous taste in automobiles and is a hopeless computer nerd.