Digital Life

License article

Go go gadgetry changes gear

Advances in technology are slowly changing the way we get from point A to point B, writes Barry Park.

IN AN age of rapidly advancing technology, cars are slowly becoming … less car-like. At one time, it was a big jump from the radio cassette player to the six-stack CD player, once the realm of only the prestigious German luxury brands but now as common as muck.

Surprisingly, Lexus - the luxury-car arm of Japanese car maker Toyota - still sells vehicles fitted with expensive Mark Levinson audio systems that include a cassette deck. Lexus says it is what the customers, mainly older buyers, want.

What has happened, then, to change the way we move, particularly during the past five years?

Digital radios

Wander into a local Hino truck dealer, slap down some money and you can drive away with some serious moving power. But there is another notable landmark for the Japanese heavy hauler - it was the first vehicle manufacturer in Australia to offer digital radio across its showroom range.

Lexus has followed with one of its new models, due out next month.


Digital radio has hit its stride in the US and Europe. It allows listeners to travel vast distances without needing to retune the station they are listening to. It also sounds better, gets over that problem with conventional AM radio of the loud buzzing you get from passing trams and can push text to your radio's screen.

Digital radio is slowly making its way into more mainstream cars such as a standard-feature, $40,000 Toyota Camry.

Video screens

Liquid-crystal screens in cars started as tiny, low-tech, monochromatic displays able to show only a small jumble of words and numbers but some of the applications now are mind-boggling. Dull dashboards become a world of colourful - sometimes pointless - information and some of the smarter systems will even log on to the internet, download photo-realistic images from Google and throw them up in your satnav system. Some cars, such as Audi's A8 limousine, include Google Earth as its guidance system.

The biggest benefit has been in-car video. Gone is the steady chorus of ''are we there yet'' - replaced by blissful silence until the movie ends or, in our case at least, someone breaks the player by trying to shove a DVD in on top of one already in the system.

We have even been able to hook up a Nintendo Wii to our car's seven-inch screen, complete with four players. It was all fun until someone got hurt.

Remote-control cars

Holden's Volt turns the conventional hybrid formula on its head - instead of a battery-powered electric motor helping a petrol engine, a petrol engine helps a battery-powered electric motor.

When it arrives later this year, expect to be able to control it remotely via your smartphone. Holden hopes to have a system that should allow Volt owners to do some fancy telephonic tricks, such as check the batteries' status, toot the horn, flash the lights, even run the airconditioning so the car is not too hot when you hop in.

Dodging traffic snarls

We hate it. Stuck in stop-start traffic, crawling along the road and clueless as to how long you are likely to be immersed in it. But that has all changed recently, with the introduction of a system named SUNA. Boffins in a laboratory collect as much information about the traffic flow in your city of choice, turn it into chunks of digital data and send it to your car's satnav system, which crunches the numbers. It then comes up as visual and audible warnings and can even suggest alternative routes.

However, rather than giving drivers a magical solution to their traffic dilemmas, Melbourne-based Intellimatics - the company behind SUNA - says it allows drivers to make a choice based on the cause of the blockage. It is then up to individual drivers to decide if they would rather sit in the traffic jam or skirt it.

Car keys

Once upon a time, a car key was an elongated, pointy piece of metal that, once in your pocket, would stab you painfully in the groin each time you sat down. Now, they are more akin to a work of art.

Buy a powerful Porsche Panamera and you will get a key that looks more like an artist's rendering of the four-door coupe's silhouette.

Buy a BMW and instead of getting just one rectangular, box-shaped key, you get a his-and-hers pair. His key will push the seat back, wind out the mirrors and raise the steering wheel every time he pushes the unlock key, while hers will lift the seat up, wind in the mirrors and adjust the steering wheel to a lower level.

The modern key is also a handy part of your car's maintenance cycle. The more clever ones store information about what problems your car has had since it was last in the service bay, allowing technicians to see instantly what needs fixing even before they have seen the car.