Want to know what features your next car might have? Then you don’t need to look much further than the flagship models of today. Like a shop window, manufacturers pack their smartest wares into these machines to showcase the technology and design they intend to endow the rest of their cars with. From automated driving to 360-degree cameras to night vision mode, we test the four most high-tech cars on the road today to find out what you might be driving tomorrow…
From £56,635, www.bmw.co.uk
These days, a good measure of whether something’s ‘modern’ or not is whether it has its own app. The M4 has two. Between them they can access your social networks, podcasts and show you where you parked your car (though we’d hope not to need that feature too often). The most useful thing of all they can do is pick apart the telemetry from your car’s engine to tell you how you’ve been driving and precisely what to do to start saving some money on petrol. Following the app’s instructions, we gained an extra 5mpg.
The computer onboard the car itself was easily the most intuitive to use. It blinked between menu screens instantly, with all the options oriented around a single dial while keeping the sat-nav displayed on the right-hand side of the screen at all times. There was hardly any waiting around when we used Google maps data to find us the nearest pub to a small B road in south Wales. There’s a built-in web browser too, which is less snappy, but a welcome addition should you need to look something up. Once your destination is primed, the directions also pop up on your windscreen via a Heads-Up Display (HUD), along with a progress bar that fills up as you close in on the next turn. This means you rarely have to take your eyes off the road.
While you drive, the cameras are also busy reading the nearest road signs to project the current speed limit alongside your actual speed on the HUD. These cameras also work with radar detectors on the nose and rear end of the M4 to help you park. They actually highlight obstacles as you approach them, going from green to red as you get nearer.
BMW’s offering might not be as pioneering as the Mercedes, but it pulls off everything it does offer supremely well.
From £62,765, www.audi.co.uk
The A8 is elegant and understated. In fact, before the keys landed in our hands it had been chauffeuring celebs to and from the BAFTA awards. Inside, the ergonomics of every button, stick and switch have carefully thought out. For example, since the gear lever is flat like a boat’s throttle, it’s where you’ll naturally rest your left hand. Knowing this, Audi has placed all the most used controls a finger’s stretch away from this spot.
The same design ethos runs into the intuitive Audi Connect system, which manages the car’s settings, sat-nav and multimedia. For instance, you can input addresses and postcodes by drawing them out with your finger on the central touchpad. It’s much quicker than relying on the car’s central ‘jogwheel’, and it successfully translated our crude chicken scratching into letters. Once the car pulls away, the touchpad displays the numbers 1-6 so you can select your favourite radio stations quickly. Your sat-nav directions are then beamed onto the windscreen by the car’s HUD, along with safety warnings if you start getting too close to the car in front. There’s even an update coming which will be able to tell you what speed to maintain to avoid having to stop at the next traffic light – thus saving you fuel. And the 360-degree camera, which takes radar images from around the car and compiles them into a top-down view, means parking will never be difficult again.
Unlike the other cars, the A8 drinks diesel. It’s also a relatively small three-litre engine block, but Audi has clearly taken the lessons it’s learned beating petrol cars in 24-hour races and put them to good use. It can be frugal and quiet one second, ferociously fast the next, while the four-wheel drive system makes you feel glued to the road at all times, and forget you’re in something the size of a yacht.
Lexus LS 600h
From £99,995, www.lexus.co.uk
Panelled with walnut and draped in leather, the LS 600h has all the opulence of a stately home. But beneath the old-fashioned demeanour is a strikingly modern petrol-electric hybrid engine – similar in a sense to what you’d find in a Toyota Prius.
Tacking an electric motor onto a five-litre V8 might seem futile ecologically speaking (though we did average around 28mpg), but it’s not there to save the planet. What it is there to do is move quickly and silently. Unlike a petrol engine, the battery-powered motor, which is charged from the wheels when the car coasts, can deliver all of its power the second you stamp your foot on the pedal. This means if you need to move all 2.8 tonnes of the car in a hurry, you don’t need to wait for the petrol engine to reach its peak rev range. And since this is a bit of a limousine it doesn’t hurt that it’ll do all this silently, too.
Most of the technology throughout is channelled to do that very job – keep everything serene. The LS 600h was the car in which we felt most isolated from the outside world. Even on the noisy, potholed M25, the inside of the cabin was relatively sedate.
Again, the car is always casting a watchful eye over the road. Radar that is sensitive enough to pick up individual pedestrians monitors the adjacent lanes and sends out a warning if you start to switch lanes without checking your blind spot – all the while monitoring the car in front in case it needs to ready the brakes and safety systems for a crash.
Unfortunately, the on-board computer isn’t as smart or as relaxing to use as the rest of the car. It’s controlled via a small joystick, which more often than not causes you to glide over the option you wanted. Generally speaking it slows everything down, and puts you off using the clever features packed behind its 12-inch display.
Mercedes S500 L AMG
From £88,130, www.mercedes-benz.co.uk
This is easily one of the most advanced machines I’ve ever experienced. On the surface, the luxuries are easy to spot. A vaporiser diffuses perfume, the chairs give hot stone massages and the sound system pumps out pin-sharp music. But strip away these extravagances, and the S500 is still miles ahead of its rivals.
Intelligence seems to be wired into the very chassis of the S500. A pair of cameras behind the rear view mirror scan the road ahead, scouting for bumps and potholes. When they find one, the whole body leans over to one side to reduce the impact – the car genuinely seemed to glide over speed bumps. These cameras also keep an eye on the car in front: the S500’s computer will spot an accident before you can, and ready the brakes in anticipation. Fail to react and the car will sound warnings before hitting the brakes for you. Thankfully we didn’t have to test this out!
After dark, an infrared camera behind the radiator keeps watch. You can monitor this from the dash, but the car is always looking for animals or people in the road. If a person steps out the car flashes its headlights, but if the car detects an animal on the tarmac, it only warns you, for fear of startling the animal.
The S500 will even do the driving for you. On motorways, we engaged the Distronic Plus system – a kind of robotic chauffeur – which steered the S500 between the white lines at a constant speed, only slowing when the car in front got closer. We kept our hands on the wheel, but otherwise just sat back and enjoyed the ride – for several hundred miles.
In truth, we’d need a few more pages to fit in all the tech found inside the S500, like the blind spot warnings, the 360-degree parking camera and more. For now all we can say is that we hope this is where car technology is heading.
This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of BBC Focus Magazine