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The Most Overrated and Underrated Car Tech

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Meet the JC Whitney Editorial Team, your go-to experts for automotive insights, from in-depth car culture articles to the latest in vehicle tech.

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Since the earliest cars, we’ve seen more different kinds of bells and whistles get added and then ultimately discontinued than you can shake a stick at. A lot of things that were once considered steps forward in automotive technology have now taken their rightful place in the dustbin of history, but on the other hand, there are plenty of advancements that have come along and withstood the test of time. Evaluating these features as overrated and underrated is somewhat a matter of fact, as in the case of previous technology that no longer exists today, and is somewhat a matter of subjective experience (which is what makes it fun to argue about). Presented here is a starting point for that conversation, then. These are pieces of car technology that we think deserve to be called overrated and underrated; change our minds.

Over:

Self Driving

It seems like for ten years we’ve been hearing that self-driving cars are just around the corner, but they have yet to materialize in the form we’ve come to expect (i.e. where a driver can get in their car, set the destination, then veg out until arrival). We of course have to acknowledge that features like semi-autonomous mode and lane assist have definitely changed the way we drive and only seem to be getting better as technology advances, but we’re still a long way from a Jetsons-like future where instead of strapping into a driver’s seat we can just stretch out on the couch when we get into our cars.

Traffic Light Assist

This is one of those superfluous high-end features you’ll see in luxury trim packages that honestly just seems like it was invented as an afterthought. The idea of this feature, for the uninitiated, is that if you are stopped at an odd angle to a traffic light (i.e. too far forward where you can’t see it), a camera mounted on the front of the car can detect when the light has changed and let you know on the dashboard. What a time to be alive, right? This whole time we’ve simply been evaluating the color of traffic lights by looking at them, but in today’s brave new world we can finally be rid of that onerous chore, thereby saving our neck muscles an untold amount of strain. 

Car Phones

Here’s one of those relics of the past that, at the time when they were first coming onto the market, must have felt like the wave of the future. In addition to impressing all your friends with your ability to call them from the road, you can almost hear the people who thought of this one saying to themselves how, someday in the not-too-distant future, every car would have a phone in it. And they were right! Just not in the way they thought. In fairness, it would have taken someone with Steve Jobs’ level of foresight to understand that car phones were going to be regarded as a passing fad rather than a technological revolution, and car makers can be forgiven for giving this feature a go. Plus, now that they are retro enough to be hip, having a car phone in your current car is actually quite stylish, especially if it somehow works.

Massage Seats

Massage chair technology was invented for those coin-operated easy chairs you used to see in shopping malls that promised a couple of minutes of relaxation for just fifty cents (okay, okay, this almost certainly isn’t true, but who cares?) and the technology has not gotten noticeably better since then. Do you like the idea of getting a back massage from a Terminator robot? Because that’s what these things feel like. They are more anxiety-inducing than normal seats but somehow more expensive. Save the cash and just go see a human professional if you need to de-stress.

Under:

Seatbelts

When a piece of technology doesn’t noticeably advance as the decades go by it’s usually either because no one really uses it that much, or because whoever designed it pretty much got it right the first time. To be fair, seatbelts have changed quite a bit in subtle ways from their first iterations to the versions we use in modern cars, but in terms of concept, form, and design they really aren’t too different. It’s always great when a piece of technology works the way it’s supposed to from the word go, but that’s doubly true when it’s something that can save your life. Good job, seatbelt inventors. This piece of car tech will probably be with us until either riding in cars becomes a completely risk-free proposition, or until some other mode of personalized transit is invented.

Courtesy of National Institute of Standards and Technology

Vent Windows

Getting rid of these things is one of the worst things that ever happened in the history of automobile development. You know that feeling when you’re riding down the road on a blissful seventy-degree day with the window down and the sunshine on your arm? Then, suddenly, you come upon a four-lane highway and start cruising at 75mph and that comforting breeze becomes a gale? The vent window allowed drivers to sort of split the difference here, letting the fresh air come in and blow right on you without subjecting yourself to a tornadic assault of wind when you’re moving at high speeds. Now sure, modern seals in windows are a lot better at keeping your perfectly conditioned air in the car. And that’s all fine and good (especially for gas mileage reasons), we guess, but the truth is that on a lot of days most drivers would be okay just letting in some air from outside if they had a more comfortable way to do so.

Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz

Manual Seat Adjustment

A fast and “just-about-idiot proof” way to adjust the seat to your liking. Like the seat belt we have, in manual seats that are adjusted with levers and by pressing your weight on the seat to move out in the direction you desire, an example of technology that worked fine the first time and didn’t need much in terms of improvement. Electric seat adjustment takes forever and, at least in its earlier forms, was not immune from going out over time leaving you with a seat stuck permanently in whatever position it was set to in 1996. Great. We will concede that preset seats are a good idea, allowing you to bring your driver’s seat back to its ideal position with the touch of a button, but beyond that manual seats work fine, weigh less, and perform their function every time. 

Remote Engine Start

If the last item had us sounding like an old-timer shaking his cane at the newfangled contraptions these kids today keep coming up with, allow us to do a 180 by praising this piece of modern technology. First of all remote start has revolutionized the act of getting in one’s car on particularly frosty or balmy days. Giving the climate a few minutes to adjust before you have to start your commute to work is truly a game-changer, but now instead of that being something you have to brave the elements to do, you can just hit a button and get your car warming up/cooling off over your morning coffee. It’s doubly useful during the winter when you can get the defrosters running a spell, saving you valuable time and misery by making scraping ice easier. It’s probably true that everyone who has remote start loves it, but there’s just no praise sufficient enough for this revolution in creature comfort.

Photo Credit Advantus Media Inc and QuoteInspector