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If it has knobs or buttons, your car may be trapped in the past

The technology in cars is advancing so rapidly the old knobs and buttons on the dash and console are going the way of the Dodo bird – anyone who hasn’t bought a new car in a decade may actually need to read the manual just to get around the block.
Posted: April 21, 2012 - 3:54PM
Author: Don Bain

From smart keys to touchscreens, the cars we drive are changing so fast, a modern Rip Van Winkle would be lost in the driver’s seat of one the more advanced new cars. What would a 20-year sleeper think of the switchblade keys you get with an Audi, Volvo or Fiat these days and how long would it take him to figure out how to unlock it using the buttons on the key fob? Whatever happened to the keyhole?

Even in the $26K Fiat 500c, you can download the contacts in your smartphone and make phone calls safely while driving via simple voice commands. Some cars even allow you to hear and respond by way of voice recognition to text messages. Standard replies, such as “Driving can’t text” and “on my way,” are provided by Nissan Connect, using a hands-free Text Messaging Assistant.

The new generation of Mercedes vehicles, the 2013 GLK for example, have an iPad docking station mounted on the backs of the front seats, capable of tilting up to 90 degrees and recharging while you surf, according to an article by Larry Printz of The Virginia Pilot.

Indeed, parking sensors and rearview cameras are virtually standard equipment on cars costing over $30K. Knobs and buttons keep getting harder to find in today’s cars.

Thinking of buying an electric car but find even keep your phone charged daunting? The 2014 Infiniti LE is a concept featuring wireless inductive charging from a pad you plug and simply park over. This pad, in simple terms, produces an electromagnetic field that induces an electron flow in a receptor within the car, thus sending a charge to the battery.

Capacitive switching is what is primarily taking away the knobs and buttons, by substituting touchscreens for functions long ago provided by toggle switches. Essentially when you touch the screen you throw a switch, though via a different mechanism. Your touch actually changes the polarity of a localized electromagnetic field. If you’ve used a smartphone or iPad, you have used capacitive switching. The coming years mean more of these, but fewer knobs and buttons.

One of the cutting edge technologies coming soon is a stabilization system for driving in strong crosswinds. This feature detects wind rushing over the body perpendicular to the direction traveled and adjusts the suspension for better stability and performance in these conditions.

If you’ve ever crossed the plains and experienced the heavy winds that require you to keep pressure on the steering wheel to go straight and then find yourself swerving wildly when the wind suddenly ceases, will be happy to know the computer can respond much quicker than your own physiology.

During a college summer between semesters, I experienced being T-boned by a 1958 Pontiac in my little 1961 Sunbeam Alpine roadster. My buddy and I bumped heads, breaking my black horn-rimmed glasses and leaving me a bit fuzzy from the concussion.

The 2013 Chevy Traverse has an airbag mounted on the right side of the driver’s seat that would theoretically prevent such injury even in a small car. It inflates between driver and passenger to protect both in side impacts.

Another friend from those halcyon days had a 1961 Rambler Wagon with a push button transmission. A design flaw in the car produced a remarkable effect, once every year so. When they would go out to the driveway and start the mighty Rambler up and push the Reverse button on the dash, the front wheels would splay, dropping the engine onto the concrete. Of course, my friend and I loved it anyway cause it would fold completely flat behind the front seats for the length of the wagon – a marvelous feature to teens attending the drive-in theaters popular way back when.

Consequently, when the new Lincoln MKZ comes out with a push button transmission this year, they will be electronic rather than mechanical, and we’re pretty sure the engine will stay right where it belongs.

In the 2013 Dodge Ram Truck, the gearshift will be a knob instead of a lever.

With those two notable exceptions, the age of knobs and buttons is rapidly fading, and if your car is still based around them, it is too. So just fun, go down to the local Tesla Salon and look at the Model S (picture above) when you get a chance. Then see how many knobs and buttons you can count in the car blazing a trail into the foreseeable future.


Anonymous (not verified)    April 21, 2012 - 6:53PM

Isn't it marvelous how each of these great integrations is designed to make the car more expensive to purchase, more expensive to repair if it breaks, and as close to impossible for anyone outside of the dealer network to repair?

Consumers are being carefully trained to be totally dependent on the manufacturer’s network and soon the computers will even drive the cars. Of course, when these electronic wonders break, consumers are conveniently there to provide ongoing profits to the shareholders. That is the objective of why we purchase our vehicles, isn't it?

David Prowse (not verified)    April 21, 2012 - 6:58PM

This is SO true. Daily driver is a 2000 and had to make certain it had window cranks and stuff like that there. This new stuff has such a large learning curve I'm too set in my ways. Has the phrase "Roll the window down" lost it's meaning?