Last weekend, I took the plunge: I replaced my 2000 Hyundai Tiburon with a Toyota Prius C Three, the newest iteration of Prius to come off of the Toyota assembly lines. There were a number of reasons for my upgrade, not the least of which was the aging condition of that beautiful shark, and its increasing maintenance costs. But I was also ready to move up to the next generation of automobiles… the generation that I expected to jump into in 2000, but wound up buying the Tiburon instead. Now, twelve years later, I finally have the next generation of car, and I find myself wanting to catalog the ways in which the car has improved over its older self. I honestly wish I could say that the Prius C is more handsome than my Tiburon; but I can’t. Both cars were hatchbacks, but the Tib was sporty in design, wide of road stance, and (to my mind) singularly attention-getting in its appearance. The Prius C looks like the economy hatchback that it’s supposed to be, no pretentious sportiness… but one thing about that no-nonsense skin, it’s aerodynamically slick. The Prius will cleave through the air much smoother than my Tiburon did, and the Hyundai was no slouch; a great deal of its energy savings is due to its ability to avoid drag.
So, the Tiburon was sexier than the Prius on the outside; but the Tib was a basic, no-frills car on the inside. The Prius is exactly opposite: Where it’s not sexy on the outside, it’s got lots of modern frills on the inside.
To begin with, getting inside. The upscale Prius has done away with the venerable key, in favor of a fob that unlocks the car when you approach it, and allows you to start it with just a finger on the Power button on the dash. To my mind, this is the least that every modern car should have today, and in fact, should be standard for houses, garages, offices, bike locks, you name it… technology has advanced far enough that we could use a single fob for everything we need to lock and open. It continues to amaze me that all cars don’t have this feature, and that we’re not presently rolling it out for everything else.
Of course, the Prius is a hybrid, using a gas-powered engine and an electric motor to share the driving duties. It’s a clear improvement over the old internal-combustion-engine-only system that has been standard since the Model A. But this is another one of those “what took you so long?” technologies, as we’ve had hybrid vehicles for decades before the car (trains and ocean liners run on hybrid engine systems). Still, better late than never, and one can only hope that eventually, all gas-powered vehicles will run on more efficient hybrid systems.
The interesting advances, to me, are all in the cockpit, the place where the modern car has evolved from power-hungry transportation device to social life support system. It used to be that the big-deal accessories in the car were the radio and the cigarette lighter. Today, you probably won’t get the lighter (in the U.S., anyway), but you’ll get all kinds of other stuff to keep your mind off smoking.
First is the radio, which is much more than just a radio today. Besides being able to hear local AM and FM stations, the radio on the Prius C Three is equipped for satellite and HD radio, as well as accepting your CDs. In addition, you can now plug your MP3 player into the car through either a USB port or a standard earphone jack, and play your favorite playlists… if you have enough music on your iPod or smartphone, you may not need any of the other radio or satellite stations… ever. In fact, now it’s hard to imagine the ages-old tradition of periodically replacing your car radio with the latest, greatest in-dash unit; this one feels like it already does everything you could possibly need, short of dropping Katy Perry into your lap as you drive.
The radio is integrated into a multi-use screen which provides a lot more than music. A built-in map will navigate your way, and give you all kinds of display choices, including icons of “points of interest” (gas stations, coffee houses, restaurants, parks, hotels, etc, etc, etc), and complete with voice to tell you where to turn instead of forcing you to stare at the map. A built-in Bluetooth system will connect to your phone, download your address book and favorites, and allow you to have hands-free phone conversations, again, without taking your eyes off the road. Another system, called Entune, allows the car to use your phone as an internet connection and provide you with news, stocks, weather, internet access, email…
I mean, this is almost scary, even to a tech-head like me. This car knows when I’m coming, where I’m going, how to get there, and how to do it energy-efficiently. Some people joke that, with today’s economy, many Americans will start living permanently in their cars. But with a ride like this, it would be almost do-able.
If I were to create a timeline of the evolution of the automobile, I would probably delineate it based on the design of the car, to wit: 1769 would cover the first power-propelled vehicles; 1885 to 1900 would cover the first “true automobile,” the gasoline-powered carriage; 1901 to 1945 would cover the first of the mass-produced autos and trucks, still partially based on the carriage frame; 1946 to 1969 covered the post-World War II “ponton” design; 1970 to 1999 brought us the age of computer-designed efficiency (at the same time that it created in some pockets an age of disdain for efficiency and yearning for the gas-guzzling past of our fathers… but that’s another story); and 2000 to the present has been the era of in-car communications, the period in which being in our cars no longer isolates us from the world until we reach our destination.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to all of this connection: It tends to take our attention away from the road. All across the U.S., accidents are increasing because people are being distracted from the primary job of navigating traffic with their quarter-ton guided missiles. Law enforcement professionals are struggling to deal with the issue, partially because it can be difficult to determine what is and is not permissible or safe during driving, and partially because people handle distraction with differing levels of ability. But as laws try to curb these activities, drivers fight them or find ways around them, demonstrating that they refuse to give up their connectivity to the world, even when behind the wheel.
This, I believe, will eventually lead to the next evolution of the auto: The self-driving vehicle. Companies are already experimenting with computer systems that can map and follow a route, avoid obstacles (and other cars), reroute around traffic and accidents, and deliver the occupants to their destinations without incident or mishap. The reality of self-driving cars is close, probably by 2020; and as those who already have trouble driving (or are too lazy to drive themselves) will probably be the first to try and prove the technology to the public, the value of letting the car do the driving will be evident to all drivers. We may even see laws that will restrict manually-operated vehicles to certain back-roads at that point, thereby convincing more drivers that self-driving cars will be the vehicle choice of the future.
The Prius is clearly a product of the modern, in-car communications era. I truly hope that the next era to document will be the fully self-driving era, when we get in our cars, give it a destination, and let the car do all the work while we play with the radio, check our stock performances, send emails and make phone calls, and update our social media pages. Hopefully that will be my next car. And hopefully, by then, none of them will be burning fossil fuels either.