Aside from the obvious emotional benefits–it’s hard not to feel a little like a jet fighter pilot when driving a car with a heads-up display–heads-up displays are a great example of technology making driving safer. Instead of looking at physical gauges and center stack-mounted GPS screens, drivers can look straight out the windshield and instantly know information like Bluetooth phone caller ID, GPS directions, and speed/time/temperature. Future iterations (like Audi’s next-generation MMI Touch) will use greater swaths of the windshield and augmented reality to point arrows at the exact street you need to turn onto, or highlight your exact destination.
BMW iDrive (Physical Controls)
By the middle of the last decade, BMW’s iDrive looked like an absolute disaster–it was driving customers away from cars like the 7 Series and frustrating nearly every critic who touched it. Many years (and a few updates) later, iDrive is the veteran system in a world of upstarts (like Cadillac’s CUE), and it shows: where whiz-bang tech features like capacitive touchscreens stutter and falter (and in CUE’s case, smudge with oily fingerprints), iDrive’s physical controller (skinnier and less clunky in its second generation) moves through menus with relative ease. iDrive’s coup de grace over similar systems like Audi’s MMI and Mercedes-Benz’s Comand is its layered menu approach–where a tilt of the controller to the left or right shifts between menus–and its array of shortcut buttons flanking the controller. In comparison, Audi’s MMI makes users rely on soft keys and the back button, and Mercedes-Benz’s Comand forces drivers to push the controller up or down–a clumsier motion to perform while driving.
OnStar (Live Operators/Cloud-based POI Databases)
A restaurant’s name, location, and phone number might only take up a few bytes of data, but there are thousands of restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and auto mechanics in this country, and they’re frequently changing names/places. On-board navigation systems might try their best with Point of Interest databases, storing them on Secure Digital cards and hard drives, but the fact of the matter is this: a 2010 model-year car–and its POI database–isn’t going to know about the new Costco around the corner from you. Furthermore, many POI databases aren’t accurate for businesses with less than a handful of locations. Enter services like OnStar and BlueLink, which connect drivers (and their cars’ Nav systems) to vast online databases that are constantly updated. While we credit services like Google and Bing Maps and Hyundai’s BlueLink system (which are automated), we reserve a special shout-out for OnStar. The service may not be cheap–$28.90 a month, included in some GM leases–but it’s well worth it for its immensely helpful reps and its ability to turn any new GM car into a nav-equipped one, regardless of what’s in your dashboard.