Technology and vehicles go hand in hand, but recently automotive manufacturers have been taking cues from Apple, Google and other digital trendsetters to make their machines more tech-friendly than ever.
The 2011 Ford Explorer SUV is a good example of how tech is changing the way we drive and what we do while we're on the road. From innovative seat belts to aided steering, here is a preview of the latest technology coming out of Detroit.
Smooth curves on the car and on the road
The most noticeable aspect of the 2011 Ford Explorer is the exterior design, which is more curvy and solid than other SUVs. The overall dimensions are about five inches wider and two inches shorter than the current Explorer. A lower center of gravity theoretically makes the vehicle more balanced and easier to control.
Ford's patented Curve Control takes technology a step further. When switched on, Curve Control automatically slows the vehicle down if you're heading into a turn at too high a speed, preventing "plowing," a loss of control in a curve. The system compares steering wheel motion to the vehicle's direction and can reduce the car's speed by as much as 10 mph per second. It checks every 1/100 of a second — yes, you read that right. Confident drivers can turn it off at any time. Curve Control launches on the 2011 Ford Explorer, but will be in 90 percent of all Ford vehicles by 2015.
The new Explorer also includes adjustable terrain-management settings for Normal, Sand, Mud, Snow and Hill, each represented by an icon on the adjustment knob. The system changes the brake pressure, turning controls and other key components to help match driving conditions. The adjustments happen on the fly, which means you can adapt to conditions as quickly as you can turn the knob.
Inflatable seat belts and crash prevention technology
Another new feature is inflatable seat belts for the rear seats. The middle of the shoulder belt inflates like an air bag during an accident to help hold passengers in place. The belts were designed to protect both adults and children old enough to wear seat belts.
The front seats include both traditional air bags and curtain air bags in the side of the vehicle, which are released if the SUV flips on its side.
Many current models have backup cameras that give you a view of what's behind you as you reverse, but the Ford Explorer also includes blind-side sensors in the side mirrors. If you signal to change lanes and there's another vehicle in the lane that you might hit, the blind-side sensor flashes to warn you.
Beginning in 2008 with the Focus, the Ford SYNC system put touch-screen and voice controls into the car for basic control over maps and music selection. Now the automaker is introducing an upgrade of Ford SYNC, called MyFord Touch, that adds several options, allowing more sophisticated control in four areas: Phone, Navigation, Entertainment and Climate.
Phone allows you to call anyone in your address book by announcing his or her name. According to Ford, the voice recognition software begins to pick up on your pronunciation after three attempts, promising speedier and more accurate access. It also includes a text message reader — so you don't have to take your eyes off the road — and a Do Not Disturb option to send all calls to voice mail.
Navigation can use MapQuest, Google Maps or another map system to guide you to your next destination. The GPS also recognizes search needs by topic. For instance, ask for an ice cream shop in Brooklyn and the system will determine where the nearest one is.
Entertainment improves on the Ford SYNC music controls. Ask it to play a specific band, like the Rolling Stones, or a specific music genre, like rock, and it will start within a second. MyFord Touch recognizes 10,000 commands, compared to the 100 or so of the Ford SYNC system.
Climate adjusts the inside conditions by voice command. Say "cooler" or "warmer" and the temperature adjusts by one degree.
All these features can be controlled from the eight-inch touch screen in the center console, too, if you would rather not talk.
A mini media hub
Beneath the armrest in the Ford Explorer is a connector for all types of mobile audio-video equipment. There are slots for an SD card, an RCA jack and two USB ports. You can take the SD card from your cell phone and plug it in to access your address book or music you have stored on your phone. The RCA jack and USB ports allow you to plug in other audio or video devices directly.
The Sony-designed center console lets you integrate mobile media. For instance, you can connect your favorite mobile music player via one of the USB ports and have your portable music library available via voice control or touch screen.
Your Own Movable Wi-Fi Hot Spot
Ever wish you could get online while riding in a car? Ford is making that possible with a Wi-Fi system that turns your vehicle into a mobile hot spot, and other automakers will undoubtedly follow suit. It works like this: You plug your smart phone into the glove compartment jack and, based on your carrier, the cell phone will enable Wi-Fi throughout the car. Passengers can use an iPad, laptop or other Wi-Fi device to surf the Internet as they ride.