Cameras and sensors. Those are the two technical features to look for in modern cars. As we approach the age of the connected automobile, when every vehicle is more self-aware on the road (for example, it knows about stoplights, other cars, and the weather conditions), the accuracy of the cameras and sensors will become even more important.
You might think the innovation on the Tesla Model S is the fact that it can drive 300 miles on a charge. In reality, it’s the sensors that can scan all around the car.
Recently, after testing a massive SUV — the 2017 Toyota Land Cruiser — for a week, I’ve come to the conclusion that Toyota is improving its sensing ability. Adaptive cruise control is just the beginning, of course. Many cars have this feature, which adjusts the speed of your vehicle automatically for the vehicle in front of you. (Fun fact: Infiniti cars can also sense the vehicle in front of that vehicle, like a game of leapfrog.) If that school bus slows down and you don’t notice, the Land Cruiser will also slow down on its own. Yet it works better in this eight-passenger giant (which costs $84,775 for the base model) than most cars I’ve tried. In my tests, the Land Cruiser slowed gradually without the sudden change so common in the earliest versions of adaptive cruise control.
The next phase of sensing involves cameras that can look all around the vehicle at all times. This is also fairly common, but to varying levels of success. Some Ford and Cadillac vehicles use “bird’s eye view” to help you park, essentially pointing a camera down from the front, sides, and back of the car to help you spot a shopping cart or a small child.
The Land Cruiser goes a step further. A feature called Multi-Terrain Monitor can show you a live feed all around the SUV, including the front, sides, and back. There’s another gauge that shows you the tilt of the vehicle. It’s designed to help you spot rocks or tree branches when you go off-road, although I wondered if anyone would go that wild and free in such an expensive vehicle. It’s one of those features that’s there if you need it.
A small dial near the gear shift lets you change views. I tested it in a parking lot to see if I was getting too close to the curb in front of me and also to spot the white lines in my stall. At home, I used it again to make sure I didn’t hit the back of my garage.
Sensors and cameras like this will become even more common once we move to autonomous driving. Imagine being able to drive a car as though you are sitting front of a set of security screens in an office building. Someday, you might be able to monitor an empty car as it pulls up from a parking space to your hotel. A Tesla already has a summoning feature that does this for backing out of your garage.
As you drive, cameras could give you peace of mind — especially since a robot driver, knowing the exact distance from a curb at all times, would not have to inch forward. It might glide into a parking spot and stop on a dime at a controlled speed.
And cameras and sensors will know about any other car or obstruction. While the Land Cruiser has cameras designed for off-roading, it’s easy to see how the same cameras could help with more than parking lots and tree branches, assisting with all driving conditions. At least if there’s a problem, we’ll see it, know about it, and even expect it.