New Things in New Cars

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

You’ve heard of Moore’s Law? Applied to computers, it states that processing power doubles — roughly — every two years.

A similar law — not yet named — arguably applies to new cars. Well, to the technology being fitted to new cars. Pressure — from consumers and Washington — to change things up is pretty intense. Cars, after all, have been around for a century and then some; the IC engine is old news. How do you make a new car “new”?

* Direct injection –

Over the past 30 years, car engines have gone from having fuel sucked into them (via carburetors) to having it sprayed into them (via fuel injection). The latest update is direct injection (DI) which is also a form of fuel injection, but with this big difference: The fuel is sprayed under extremely high pressure (thousands of PSI vs. the 30-40 psi used in conventional fuel injection) directly into the engine’s cylinders. Older fuel injection systems shot the fuel into an intake manifold (throttle body or TBI injection) where it was mixed with air before being sucked into the cylinders — or the fuel was sprayed into the airstream just ahead of the cylinders. But in neither case was the fuel sprayed directly into the combustion chamber itself. Why do this? It allows for even more precise metering of fuel — and that means less wastage, which means improved fuel mileage.

New car engines fitted with DI systems make a distinctive — almost diesel — slight rattling noise at idle. This is normal — don’t sweat it. And — usually — the noise is only noticeable when the hood is raised and you’re outside the car.

* Auto Stop –

Hybrids cut down fuel consumption by cutting off the gas-burning engine whenever it’s feasible to do so. Conventional cars are adopting the same strategy. When you roll up to a red light or are stuck idling in traffic, the car’s computer registers this stationary state and — automatically — cuts off the engine. When the driver takes his foot off the brake pedal — or pushes the accelerator pedal down — the computer automatically re-starts the engine (this happens almost instantaneously, using a very high torque electric starter motor) and off you go.

The fuel savings aren’t huge — but they are significant. Even half a mile per gallon matters — if not so much to the car’s owner as to the car’s manufacturer. All car companies are under tremendous pressure to improve the overall fuel economy of their new car fleets — and this is one of the ways they do it.

The first time your new car’s engine automatically stops may startle you — and ignite feelings of dread you’ve just bought a lemon. But don’t worry — it’s supposed to do this. And you can (usually) turn off the feature if you don’t like it.

* Bun warners

GM came up with this one. In certain new Caddys and Buicks, when an object is detected in the path of the car (as when backing up out of a parking space) the driver will be alerted to the potential hazard by a light vibrating sensation coming from the underside of his seat. It’s a directional warning, too — the vibration will be felt by the left cheek if the potential obstacle is coming from that direction. And by the right cheek if coming at you from that direction. The system is clever because it’s unobtrusive — only the driver is warned of possible objects in his path; his passengers don’t have to endure loud, obnoxious warning buzzers. And because it’s intuitive — you instantly feel which direction the threat is coming from.

* Haptic Controls –

Taking a cue from iPads — and perhaps the flat-screen bridge of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation — many new cars (especially higher-end luxury cars) now come with touch-sensitive pads in lieu of old-timey buttons and knobs. To adjust fan speed, for instance, one sweeps one’s finger from left to right across the smooth surface, just as you’d do with an iPad. Some of these Haptic surfaces provide tactile feedback in the form of a light thump you can feel as you make adjustments. Others are heat sensitive — and hardly need to be touched at all.

In addition to being futuristic, the big everyday advantage to the Haptic layout over conventional buttons and knobs is there are no crevices for crumbs and debris — just a single sheet of smooth plastic that’s easier to clean — and keep clean. The downside is these Haptic control surfaces sometimes don’t respond as immediately — or precisely — as they ought to. The technology is still being hashed out. But expect it to become more and more user-friendly … and more and more commonplace over the next couple of years.


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