Americans love their automobiles. We eat in them, vacation in them, compete in them. Part tool, part personal avatar, autos are on the cutting edge of everything from engineering to fashion.
This year the electronic revolution continued to transform the automotive industry with e-gadgets that aid autonomous driving, in-car entertainment and muscle.
Herewith, and in no particular order, are the Top 10 automotive innovations of 2017 ...
A lock on the past: Carmakers have largely moved away from those old-fashioned door-lock posts on window sills — you remember, the pegs you pulled straight up on to unlock car doors? Electronic rocker switches on door panels — or a double-pump of the door handle — do the work now. But new General Motors models like the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain defy the trend on their rear doors. Why the rears, you ask? Because focus-group parents wanted to look back and have visual confirmation that their rugrats’ doors were locked. And if the kiddies went to sleep with their arm on the door? No problem — they’d just push down the post.
Open Sesame: For years, auto suppliers have teased doors that automatically open to passengers. Tesla, as it has in many new technologies, decided to give it a try on its Model X SUV. With the X already offering falcon-wing rear doors, Tesla CEO Elon Musk thought the fronts needed pizazz, too. Walk past the door with the key in your pocket and the door swings open. Touch the brake upon entry and it shuts behind you.
Kick-open sliding doors: Before Tesla’s automatic driver door, there was Ford’s kick-open rear hatch — a feature copied by other automakers to help drivers with arms full of groceries. Chrysler offers the feature on both sliding doors (and hatch, natch) on its Pacifica minivan. Wave your foot under the door — and voila! A great feature for parents with arms full of child seats.
Super Cruise: Self-driving is the industry buzz, but so-called Level-4 fully autonomous cars are years away. Cadillac has made a practical Level-2 system for its CT6 sedan — one that requires driver attention, but allows for less-stressful driving over long distances. Restricted to limited-access divided highways, Cadillac’s GPS/laser-mapped system allows for miles of relaxed, hands-free driving (just like you’re sitting at home) with steering wheel-mounted alerts for when the CT6 needs you to take over.
Magic Slide: Chrysler may have invented Stow ’N Go second-row seating in the minivan segment, but Honda is no slouch in the interior innovation department, either. Listening to customers, they determined that Odyssey minivan drivers wanted better access to their child seat-bound, second-row rugrats. The result? A middle seat that moves on rails to get closer to the driver. The feature also allows better entry for third-row passengers.
Fastback hatches: Premium customers love their Audi A7, Porsche Panamera and Tesla Model S five-door coupes with sporty “fastback” hatchbacks. Now, thanks to the $40,000 Kia Stinger and $32,000 Buick Regal, more folks can enjoy the benefits of gorgeous design and hatchback utility. In the age of the all-wheel drive SUV, these all-wheel drive fastbacks may help sedans stay relevant.
Digital displays: Configurable digital displays help put more information in front of the driver, making for safer driving, especially when they’re heads-up displays. They can be found in everything from the $70,000 Audi Q7 to a $35,000 Honda Accord. An innovator in digital displays, Tesla has taken a chance by foregoing the instrument cluster altogether in its new Model 3 (all info is in the console tablet). Um, maybe they’ll at least consider a heads-up display?
48 volts: All those new auto electronics require more juice. Say hello to the versatile 48-volt battery. Volvos and Bentleys get them, so do Jeep Wranglers. While the 12-volt battery handles the basic ignition and lighting functions, 48-volt lithium-ion packs handle the electronic systems — e-steering, e-brakes, e-safety assist. Easily stored (the Wrangler’s battery is under the rear seat), the 48 also provides fuel-efficiency and power-assistance. With mpg requirements rising, the new battery can bring a 20 percent increase in gas savings.
Twin-clutch packs: As demand for all-wheel drive systems grows with the sport-utility revolution and performance cars, high-tech hardware is going mainstream. Rear twin-clutch packs were once exclusive to track rats like the all-wheel drive Ford Focus RS that needed better rotation through corners. But now Buick is offering the technology in its Enclave and Envision SUVs, and its Lacrosse and Regal sedans — the better to apportion torque for grip on slippery Michigan winter roads.
The pull blind: Another thoughtful interior solution from the folks who brought you Magic Slide seats, Honda Civic hatchbacks (Sport and snarling Type-R) come with a cargo cover that pulls from side-to-side across the cargo area — negating the need to remove a bulky front-to-rear cover as in other hatchbacks. The roll-away side-to-side blind means no more awkward, storage of the blind when the back seats are folded flat — or leaving it at home where it’s useless when you suddenly need to hide those Christmas gifts.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.