ForbesAutos takes a look at the latest set of features that are defining a new generation of luxury vehicles.
Click through for the top 10 features that redefine automotive luxury.
1. Human-Machine Interface (HMI): Motorists are suffering from technology overload. “The trend for the future is to seamlessly integrate all of the mobile devices. It redefines the definition of luxury,” says Johnson Controls VP Mike Warsaw. Navigation, Bluetooth mobile phones, portable audio and video devices will all get synched into one interface along with the rest of the vehicles’ increasingly complex electronic systems. Perfecting the human-machine interface in vehicles is challenging as automakers struggle to keep pace with the latest technology and make controls intuitive.
2. Adaptive Headlights: Adaptive headlights change the way light hits the road. Lenses and reflectors in the headlights move in conjunction with the steering wheel to throw beams of light in the direction of a turn. Like the now-pervasive airbag and skid-control systems, adaptive headlights are an example of advanced safety technology being pioneered on luxury automobiles.
3. Adaptive Cruise Control: The ability to cruise without worrying about the traffic pace is not only a luxury, it enhances safety. Adaptive cruise control uses sensors in the front bumper to gauge the distance and speed of traffic ahead. The driver can set a predetermined distance from a vehicle that the system then automatically maintains, no matter the speed.
4. Live Traffic Reports: Navigation systems with live traffic reports can help when streets and highways are gridlocked or unexpectedly closed. “People can immediately look and see what’s in their path,” says Lexus’ Greg Thome. Acura says its 2005 RL sedan was the first vehicle sold in the U.S. to offer this feature.
5. Super-High-Fidelity Audio Systems: “For some people, the sound system they listen to in their car is more important than the sound system in their home,” says Lexus’ Greg Thome. That has lead luxury carmakers to partner with ultra-high-end audio experts, such as Mark Levinson in the case of Lexus.
6. Hard Drives: Carrying around a portable audio device can be cumbersome, not to mention the complicated wires and contraptions often needed to synch it to the vehicles’ audio system. Head units with integrated hard drives are emerging as a solution for audiophiles bent on listening to their own playlists.
7. Keyless Entry/Start: With keyless entry/start systems, the key fob never has to leave the purse or pocket. These systems automatically unlock doors via radio frequency transmission and only require the push of a button to start and stop the engine. It’s becoming standard on mid- to upper-range luxury models and optional on lower-end vehicles.
8. Heated and Cooled Seats, Front and Rear: Now that heated front seats are available on many non-luxury models, a new genre of seat-based temperature control is emerging. Cooling functions of two varieties are offered on luxury vehicles: one involves simply piping the chilled A/C fluid through the seat to make it physically colder; the other involves thousands of tiny holes through which cold air is blown.
9. Rear Sun Shades: Midsize and full-size luxury sedans now offer power, retractable sunshades that use a transparent mesh screen to cover the rear window. They can be useful for shading infants, VIPs and anyone seeking to minimize the effects of UV rays.
10. Massaging Seats: Full-size luxury sedans are the next platform for this decadent feature. Massaging rear seats are part of the LS 460 L’s Executive Package. “It’s for people who get driven around versus who drive their vehicles themselves,” says Lexus’ Greg Thome.
by Tamara Warren and Matthew de Paula
The handcrafted extravagance and sumptuous, expensive materials that once set luxury vehicles apart are giving way to a new breed of amenities. Luxury is going electronic.
Superior craftsmanship and materials, such as rare woods, high-end leathers and chrome accents, still rank high on consumers” wish lists and continue to define luxury vehicles, but the convenience and pervasiveness of consumer electronics and computer-driven innovations is prompting manufacturers to focus on new technology to create a luxurious experience.
Compounding this is the fact that now even the most basic cars include amenities once reserved for high-end vehicles. Power windows, heated seats and navigation systems are becoming common in the mass market. As a result, a new spate of exclusive high-tech amenities is now taking hold.
“The automotive marketplace is in a state of transition,” says Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies at J.D. Power and Associates. “Two years ago, navigation started being introduced into the compact market.”
The Human-Machine Interface
As more technology is added to every vehicle and drivers bring various portable electronic devices with them, automakers are focusing on creating centralized systems to control it all without overwhelming the driver. The buzzword for this is the “human-machine interface,” or HMI. “The industry has become sophisticated and craftsmanship has become a given. The next frontier is HMI,” says Mike Warsaw, vice president of industrial design and marketing for Johnson Controls, a parts supplier to major automotive manufacturers that helps develop new technology on vehicles. “It”s about having all of your technology working seamlessly and achieving a level of harmony within your vehicle.”
HMI streamlines the control of and interaction with consumer electronics such as mobile phones, portable audio players, USB memory sticks and navigation into a single gateway inside the vehicle.
“I think generally luxury buyers want to have the latest and greatest,” says John Howell, product director for Cadillac. “It”s important for them to be on the leading edge. The cutting edge is being able to use various consumer electronics. We can”t change or innovate cars fast enough.” Offering a cohesive control system for multiple features is one way carmakers are trying to stay ahead of innovations in aftermarket and consumer electronics.
Each luxury manufacturer touts a different sort of HMI hub for climate control, navigation, audio, DVD and mobile phone systems. For example, BMW has iDrive, Audi has Multi-Media Interface and Mercedes-Benz has Command. Each one integrates the disparate vehicle systems differently and with varying degrees of success. BMW with its iDrive has sought to reduce controls to one main knob that manipulates menus on a screen. Acura, Infiniti and Lexus take a different approach with myriad buttons, switches and knobs for every conceivable function. Audi and Mercedes-Benz blend a large knob with multiple dedicated controls.
All of these HMI systems do have something in common: They”re still only found on luxury vehicles.
The gadgets that HMI systems command are proving appealing to consumers. The New Vehicle Experience Study conducted by Strategic Vision, an independent automotive research firm, found that among 47,000 owners of 2007 model year vehicles surveyed, the latest luxury-oriented gadgets, such as heated and cooled seats, keyless start and premium audio systems, ranked in the top 20 most important features, just behind more commonplace items like anti-lock brakes, leather and power seats.
“To be luxury it has to do something useful,” says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision. “These people are looking for things that make driving safe or fun.”
Laptop-like capabilities such as onboard hard drives to download MP3 music files are among the latest innovations. “You can take the CDs and burn them with up to four gigabytes of information on the new 2008 C-Class,” says Mercedes-Benz spokesperson Rob Moran. “It”s the first car that we have that has it. I think people are getting more sophisticated in their choices.” Chrysler and Mitsubishi already offer hard-drive storage capabilities on certain models.
Form and Function
Another emerging trend in automotive luxury is a heightened sense of ambiance, illustrated by the demand for high-end audio systems and interior LED lighting that makes the car feel more like a home setting. Lexus spokesperson Greg Thome says that this trend drove the company”s partnership with the high-end audio firm Mark Levinson. “For some people, the sound system they listen to in their car is more important than the sound system in their home,” Thome says.
While luxurious materials remain important, the composition of these textiles is expected to change along with consumer tastes for comfort and design. “Leathers in general are at the top of the list,” says Cadillac product director Howell, but adds that new materials are emerging. “You”re going to see more organic and sustainable things like bamboo.” Howell also mentions a new type of synthetic leather called “protein vinyl” that will make its way to vehicles. “Essentially, it”s a material that uses a certain amount of animal material ground up and mixed in with non-organic material so that you get a hybrid material that”s somewhere between leather and vinyl,” he says.
Technology also plays a key role in the demand for more practical features that affect ride quality and safety by responding automatically to driving conditions. Adaptive cruise control and headlights are increasingly in demand.
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