Ten Best and Worst Automotive Gadgets

As the line between automotive electronics and consumer electronics grows ever closer, the list of new-car options has grown at an incredible pace. As a person who’s constantly in a new vehicle and has an insatiable love for gadgetry, click through the jump for my top 10 must-haves and the 10 options you should avoid at all costs. Picking the right options can help your car’s resale value and choosing the wrong ones can lower it or even limit the market for your ride.


iPod/USB integration with voice commands

We all love tunes and you know that we all secretly love to tell our car what to do. It’s a match made in heaven.

Adaptive cruise control

I’m not convinced self-driving cars are going to pass legislative and legal hurdles, not to mention the inevitable flood of lawsuits, but one key technology the systems depend on is available on a wide variety of cars: adaptive cruise control. Using a radar system mounted on the front of the car, the car’s computer works the stop and go pedals for you to keep you under your pre-set speed and a safe distance from the car you’re following. The steering and panic stopping are up to you of course, but if you’re in moderate to mild freeway traffic I find it makes me a better driver by dealing with the slow down, speed up, slow down nature of traffic that drives me crazy. The fact that most systems will alert you if you’re not paying attention and are about to rear end the school bus is just icing on the cake.

Keyless entry/go

Keys are so last century.

Collision mitigation systems

A car that’s out to save my bacon (and my insurance premiums) ranks high on my list. I dislike systems that intervene too early, but the systems by Lexus and Volvo wait until the 11th hour (or the 11th nanosecond) to do something about your rear-ender-in-progress. I was a skeptic at first, a Volvo XC60 stopped itself automatically when I was momentarily distracted and that made me a believer.

Bluetooth integration

One of the greatest changes sweeping the industry over the last 5 years is the near universal availability of Bluetooth. While many new cars come with the technology standard, it is still on option some so do your homework. Don’t order a car without it. Aside from speaker phone capability, Bluetooth allows you to stream audio from your music device to the car and is one of the few technologies likely to survive for your car’s lifetime.

Dynamic beam headlamps

You know, the ones illegal in the USA? Yea. Them. In a nutshell the car scans the road ahead with a camera and using a sophisticated projection headlamp array it “blocks out” the light that would shine onto a car ahead of you (your direction or the opposite side of the road) so that your high beams can light up the rest of the road without blinding anyone. I’ve had the opportunity to drive several prototype vehicles and the system has to be the best thing since French car sales stopped in the USA. Sadly the Feds won’t let us have snazzy headlamps.

Heated steering wheel

Much like anal sex, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Automatic climate control

Many years ago I decided that any new car I own must have certain features. Power seats, a telescopic steering wheel, heated seats and lastly automatic climate control. Over the years I have added plenty of must-haves to my list, but none top the automatic climate control. Why? Because I


that buy that’s too lazy to adjust knobs and buttons on my own.

Active suspension systems

I’ve owned three vehicles with active suspension systems and driven at least 40 to date. The systems on offer vary from simple load-leveling systems like the one in my GMC Envoy that drastically improve vehicle behavior when towing (and make it easy to deal with heavier-than-normal tongue weights) to fully-dynamic systems that alter the ride height and damping firmness. While the early systems on the Volvo S60R/V70R  had some software bugs, every modern system I have tested has done exactly what it says on the tin.

Heads-up displays

As the name implies, the goal is to give you information while keeping your eyes on the road. While I wouldn’t pay extra for the GM or Toyota systems, BMW’s full-color system is gorgeous and is the first system to display enough information to be worth ordering. In addition to the usual suspects of speed, tachometer, and gear information it will also show you your cruise control info, the speed limit on your current road and you can browse your media device. Last time I was in a dealer I broke my “never interfere” rule and told a customer “no, seriously the sales dude is right, the heads up thing rocks, get it.” If you own a 2013 BMW 3-Series and don’t have it, you should be forced to drive a Chevy Spark.


Lane watching cameras

The idea sounds good, it’s kind of like blind spot monitoring with a camera. At the press of a button, or when you use your turn signal, the system shows the video feed on your infotainment screen. My problem is: the same information can be gleaned by turning your head and looking over your shoulder and/or in the mirror which is on the side of the car anyway. If you must have a blind spot nanny, get one that beeps if someone’s in your blind spot, that’s more helpful.

Electric parking brakes

Sweet Jesus, save me. I love gadgets as much as the next person. I love power seats, power mirrors and power windows, but why on earth would I want an electric parking brake? Sure, they automagically set themselves when you turn the car off, but releasing them is an exercise in frustration. By all indications they are less reliable than the traditional mechanisms and should you ever need to use it as an “emergency brake,” they are a royal pain. Pray to whatever deity you believe in that the creator of this lever of horrors is struck by lightning.

Capacitive touch buttons

I love an easy-to-clean surface as much as the next guy, but I’m bright enough to know that if you are trying to pay as much attention as possible to the road, buttons that you can stab without looking down are the way to go. Instead, the automotive trend has been moving towards “touch” buttons. The button-free buttons don’t move when you press them and are impossible to find by feel. Sure, some companies but little bumps on them so you think you can hunt by feel. When you attempt that process you just hit all the wrong buttons sending your infotainment system into a crash-inducing tailspin. Of course, Cadillac’s CUE system doesn’t need any help to go haywire and crash.

Night vision

Night vision is a great technology if you’re hunting the enemy in Desert Storm part 2. In suburbia it’s just a $2,500 option that won’t get you laid. Trust me, I’ve tried. The systems allow you to “see” further than your headlights in the dark, but don’t try driving by looking at the screen you’ll get yourself into a world of hurt. The field of vision is too narrow, the response time is too slow and it’s in the wrong position anyway. I have a better idea: if you can’t see at night, don’t drive. Problem solved.

Launch control

Launch control sounds like a great idea and I couldn’t wait to get in a car with a modern launch control system. Sadly, like most things you eagerly anticipate, LC isn’t all its cracked up to be. Most systems are overly complicated with too many steps to follow before you’re ready to race. By the time you follow the procedure, the modded pickup you were trying to race has forgotten all about you. Adding insult to injury I have yet to test a system that made a difference in our 0-60 tests. The M6, M5, Challenger SRT8, Grand Cherokee SRT8 and others all posted better numbers when I used my 1990s launch control system: a properly calibrated right foot. Trust your instincts.

Satellite mapping

Don’t confuse this with navigation. I love me some navigation. I’m talking about Google satellite imagery overlayed on the car’s nav map. Until I get the flying car that was promised on the Jetsons, I don’t see why I need a mile-high view of the mall. Maybe if it was displaying big brother’s “creepy-live” data so I could see what parking spots are free, but until then just say no to yet *another* cellular data subscription.

Integrated booster seats

They sound like a great idea. You’re either planning on having kids or you have kids. The trouble is, if you’re planning on having kids, plenty can happen between the vehicle purchase and the time your progeny are age/weight appropriate. If you have kids already, it won’t be long before they are too old or too heavy to be in the booster seat. This just means you’ve paid for a very expensive set of booster seats that you’re stuck with until you ditch the car. Oh, and the seats are less comfortable for everyone, the kids in the seat and any adult unfortunate enough to have to sit in it.

Fog lights

In N. America we’re talking about front fog lights, not the rear fog lights required in some countries. Although, I really should talk about both. Front fog lights stopped being about fog and started being about fashion soon after they started. I live in a foggy area and I have yet to drive a vehicle whose fog-lights helped visibility. At best they light up the area immediately in-front of your bumper, but nine times out of ten they throw light everywhere making visibility worse. Rear fog lights are great, except nobody in America knows how to use them, especially Audi drivers who think its cool to leave them on 24×7.

Sports appearance packages

Just say no. Sports appearance packages do nothing to make your ride go faster, they usually just make it depreciate faster. Ouch. Sports handling packages can help the car’s dynamics with stiffer springs but your money is usually better spent on better tires.

Rear seat entertainment systems

Yep, RSE systems are totally cool but they are also one of the worst things you can spend your money on. Aside from the fact that most RSE systems have small displays, clunky software, crappy integration and are expensive, they are often integrated into strangely shaped front seat headrests that destroy the aesthetics of your car. Save yourself some cash and get an iPad or two. Not only are they better at entertainment duties while in motion, the digital babysitter is portable and will go with your kid on the plane.