If you’re one of those people who has to have all the latest tech gear—with all the freshest software updates—it might seem like a natural next step to buy a car to match. Today’s vehicles offer plenty of technology to choose from, too, including mobile Wi-Fi connectivity, advanced smartphone integration and the ability to handle a wide range of typical driving tasks. Even some relatively inexpensive compact cars already have the capability to sense vehicles on the road ahead, then automatically apply the brakes to prevent a collision. Innovations such as these have the auto industry on the verge of a self-driving car revolution.
But while automakers are pushing the envelope for what’s possible in a new vehicle, you may want to re-think exactly how much tech you really want in your next ride—or at least what kind. That’s because some of the same technologies that make your life so easy when at home or at the office can have unintended consequences when you try to use them in your car.
The amount of personal connectivity technology in the latest cars and trucks is growing by leaps and bounds, with most mainstream automakers now offering Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. This essentially transforms a vehicle’s infotainment touchscreen into a remote, fully functional home screen for compatible smartphones. As a result, drivers can control nearly all of a phone’s functionality using the car’s touchscreen or voice-recognition system. Further, a growing list of companies, including Chevy, Ford and Honda, supply actual mobile Wi-Fi capability with 4G LTE service.
It may seem like a good idea to leverage your car’s infotainment system to control your phone in this manner, keeping your hands free and your concentration on the road. However, before you choose this sort of technology for your car, you should realize that, according to extensive research from the National Safety Council, handsfree devices “do not eliminate cognitive distraction” and “offer no safety benefit while driving.”
Despite the myth of multitasking, it turns out your brain can’t do two things at once, and any time taken away from paying attention to the driving process can have fatal results.
Beyond the very real risk of distracting you as the driver, connecting to the internet in your car can also make you vulnerable to the actions of others. Perhaps you are aware of the stories of car-hacking—where people can virtually break into your car and take physical control over it. Yet although this scenario gets the most press, it’s also the most difficult to pull off. The exploits shown on TV generally took years of work to achieve and often physical access to the vehicle, and once those dangers were publicized, automakers began getting more serious about security (for instance, by better isolating vehicle-control hardware from onboard systems that connect to the outside world).
That’s where the real concerns are, as wireless networks are inherently less secure than physical ones. Automakers, though, are increasingly relying on them for everything from updating vehicle-system software to providing access to online-based navigation and infotainment resources. At this stage, one automaker, Ford, has gone as far as developing car-based applications for using Amazon’s Echo and Alexa systems. Indeed, this capability will be offered on Ford Fusion cars and F-150 pickups this year, creating another wireless stream of data for hackers’ efforts—one that’s directly connected to your Amazon account and, therefore, your credit card info.
Another vulnerability of connected cars was recently reported in The Washington Post, detailing a recent WikiLeaks release on the topic of vehicle hacking by the CIA, which raised concerns about tracking vehicle movements and eavesdropping on conversations though a car’s infotainment system. This operating system, QNX, is at use in tens of millions of vehicles, so cracking that single code could affect a substantial number of drivers.
If all goes as expected, the mid-term future will see a completely interconnected network of autonomous vehicles, in which any given car will be able to access information from all other vehicles on the road, and from the rest of the internet of things, to ensure safer, more efficient travel. Needless to say, that’s when the intersection of wireless security and driver-assistance technology will need to come into focus.
Most of the current in-vehicle safety technologies, on the other hand, do not use wireless technology, and that eliminates an immediate concern over hackability. The main issues right now when considering safety technology for your vehicle are effectiveness and pricing—two factors that also should have some impact on all tech decisions, as discussed below.
Outside of your car, your preferred digital ecosystem, whether Android or Apple, generally enables a consistent user experience regardless of your device. The introduction of smartphone-integration systems is beginning to do something similar for vehicles, but the automaker’s specific infotainment technologies can vary pretty widely, even between two different car models.
Keeping this in mind, it pays to “try before you buy” in terms of automotive technology. You don’t want to pay for features that don’t work as you envisioned, so try out that voice-activation technology as part of your car-buying process, and check out the other tech content you’re evaluating as well. Clearly, this isn’t possible with collision-avoidance systems and the like, but you should still be sure you understand how they work and what they do as part of your cost-benefit analysis.
That, in turn, should take into account research by AAA that indicates “new tech-filled cars break down more often than older” vehicles—if only because the more technologies a car employs, the more that can go wrong. And technology fixes are not often cheap: Merely replacing a high-tech key fob can cost hundreds of dollars.
Technology Cost Implications
That brings us to a final issue, but perhaps the most important one: the cost of automotive technology. There are a few notable high-value technology packages in the auto industry, but not all are created equal. The Chevrolet Cruze, for example, has a base price of about $17,000 and offers mobile Wi-Fi capability. A comparable Toyota Corolla starts at about $300 more, but Toyota furnishes this compact car with standard pedestrian detection, forward-collision warning and lane-keeping assistance. With the Cruze, you’ll need to select an option package on the top trim level to get these features. That adds about $7,000 to the bottom line, boosting the Cruze’s suggested price to roughly $24,000. You’ll need to weigh the pros and cons as you select your preferred car tech features as they relate to the make/model you’re considering buying.
Indeed, you’ve got to have some dollars of your own before the gamut of auto technologies start to make sense for your budget.
About Charles Krome
Charles Krome is a car expert and writer for CARFAX, a go-to source for used car shopping. His passion drives him to share his knowledge on all things cars and stay up to date with tech trends as they relate to the auto industry.