Dynamic bending headlights were a rare luxury when they first appeared on the BMW 3 series, Lexus RX and Porsche Cayenne back in 2003. These headlights, which pivot side to side with the steering to help drivers see turns better at night, have filtered down to the point where they’re now going to be introduced on the redesigned version of Hyundai’s Elantra small sedan. And it’s the same story with adaptive cruise control. First introduced by the cutting-edge Mercedes S-Class sedan in 1999, expect to see it next year on the Nissan Sentra and Honda Civic.
“These are things that customers have come to demand now,” Mike O’Brien, vice president of corporate and product planning at Hyundai Motor America, said in an interview. “If you talk to a customer who has never experienced a backup camera and gets one for the first time, they tell you they’ll never go back. Our job is to bring this technology down to an affordable level.”
Of course, this filtering down of tech isn’t new, and many common features in the vehicles of today started out as high-priced extras in the luxury cars of yesterday. Examples of this are anti-lock brakes, reversing cameras, keyless entry and keyless start, and if you go back far enough, even items we now take for granted as being standard in all vehicles, like air-conditioning and power steering. Electronic stability control (ESC) in particular, first offered 15 years ago on the BMW 7-Series, is now standard on every single car ever made – though government legislation might have had something to do with that!
But perhaps the speed at which this filtering happens is increasing? The 2016 Sentra unveiled in Los Angeles will cost less than US$20,000, and for that cheap entry-level price you’ll receive a Driver Assist package with automatic braking and blind-spot monitoring, plus a NissanConnect navigation and smartphone interface. The compact Sentra used to be Nissan’s least expensive car and its gateway to the brand, with high technology reserved for nameplates such as the Altima and Maxima. “Compacts are fantastic cars now,” said Ken Kcomt, Nissan’s director of product planning for passenger cars and sports cars. “We wanted the Sentra to communicate high quality, both in how it looks and how it drives.”
A similar thing is happening in the cabin, too. Apple CarPlay, first seen in the 2014 Ferrari FF, is now available in the Mitsubishi Mirage, running along with Google’s Android Auto smartphone interface on a 7- or 8-inch touch screen. Likewise, when General Motors introduced Siri Eyes Free, allowing customers to talk to the voice assistant on the iPhone using a button on the steering wheel, it offered it not on a Cadillac or a Buick, but on the entry-level Chevrolet Spark and Sonic, whose younger buyers prize the latest technology.
In the end, the consumers are the real winners here. These technologies have the ability to make cheaper, entry level cars safer, easier to use and more enjoyable to drive. It’s also particularly exciting to imagine what technologies will be included as standard on these vehicles 10 or 20 years from now.