How different, really, is one car from the next? Not in size, colour or model, but the underlying technology?
While the names of features and capabilities touted by auto makers tend to sound slightly different – Electronic Stability Program versus Electronic Stability Control, anyone? – it's hard not to feel as if everything is more or less the same. And you wouldn't be wrong.
"To a large extent, cars are pretty much the same. They're pretty much commoditized at this point," says analyst Thilo Koslowski, vice president of research firm Gartner's automotive division. "I have not seen any truly standout technology that would be worth highlighting differently, simply because there [isn't] that much innovation in most of these components, and consumers can't even differentiate."
Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, says that part of the problem is also how quickly innovative or new ideas are copied and spread. He recalled Chrysler's decision to put a sliding door on the driver's side of its minivans, where it had previously been on the passenger side alone – a move that proved successful. "This industry is capable of responding, and responding very quickly," says DesRosiers. "There was probably one year where Chrysler had the market to itself."
Ultimately, it comes down to smart marketing and branding to set manufacturers apart.
"If you just call it turbocharge then you're no different from everybody else calling it turbocharge," DesRosiers says.
Case in point, here are some common marketing terms that may sound unique and proprietary, but aren't all that different from what's being offered by everyone else.
SkyActiv is a combination of engine, transmission, body and chassis technology that Mazda says improves fuel-efficiency and reduces vehicle weight while maintaining or improving driving performance – which, when phrased that way, sounds a lot like what every other car manufacturer is trying to do. Really, though, the term is used to encapsulate changes to multiple components. BMW calls its technology Efficient Dynamics while Ford uses the EcoBoost brand. There are certainly differences in performance and design between manufacturers, but the end goals are largely the same.
This is just a fancy name for Electronic Stability Control (ESC) – a generic name for the computer system in your car that compensates for oversteer, understeer and unforeseen environmental hazards by selectively braking your vehicle's wheels to stay on an intended course. Nissan calls its ESC system Vehicle Dynamic Control, while Ford uses AdvanceTrac, and for Land Rover, it's Dynamic Stability Control. Really, just watch for any mention of "stability." It's all the same.
Honda's Magic Seat
Honda offers a row of split seats that can be folded, flipped up or hidden on some models. Inexplicably, Honda has branded this Magic Seat. But really, it's the same seating concept that other manufacturers have touted for years. Sure, some companies automate the process of folding and opening seats – Ford's PowerFold technology comes to mind – but Magic Seat is just marketing through and through.
Ford's Blind Spot Information System (BLIS)
Surprise: There's nothing fancy going on here, either. Similar to GM's Side Blind Zone Alert, Hyundai's Blindspot Detection System, or Mazda's Blind-Spot Monitoring System, Ford's BLIS uses radar sensors to identify approaching vehicles, and alerts the driver using a small warning light on the sideview mirror.
Nissan AroundView Monitor
Nissan's AroundView technology combines wide-angle video imagery from multiple side, rear and front-mounted cameras into a top-down, birds-eye view of everything around your car. The company's Infiniti division uses the same technology, while Audi and BMW have their own implementations, too. This is different from more common camera systems which might only have a single camera at the rear or front of the vehicle – or technology such as Honda's LaneWatch system which puts cameras in a vehicle's sideview mirrors instead.
LandRover's Terrain Response system
LandRover's Terrain Response system was introduced more than a decade ago to make off-road driving less daunting. A knob on the dashboard allows the driver to choose between various outdoor scenarios – mud, sand, rocks, or snow – which tunes the vehicle's powertrain, engine and braking systems for optimal traction. Ford has its Terrain Management System, while Toyota has its Mult-Terrain Select Control, neither of which came first, but function similarly in practice.
Mercedes-Benz's Attention Assist
If you've ever felt drowsy or distracted behind the wheel, you can count on Mercedes-Benz's Attention Assist feature to watch your back. The system learns your normal driving behaviour, watches for telltale changes in steering and vehicle control that might indicate trouble, and sounds an alert if required. But is it unique? Volvo had a similar technology first in 2007 (Driver Alert Control) and both Ford and Volkswagen have since debuted their own versions.
Bluetooth wireless technology is the gold standard for connecting your mobile phone in-car for hands-free calling, streaming music and other phone features. Some companies, such as Honda, build other features on-top of Bluetooth – such as voice dialling and voice control – and give it a special sounding name. Nissan calls its voice-calling implementation Hands-free Phone System, but the functionality is standard on most cars. HandsFreeLink is just another way of saying that, yes, you can wirelessly link your car and phone.
A standard feature on certain Ford models since 2010, MyKey enables parents to give their kids a specially programmed ignition key that limits maximum speed and audio levels, and reminds the driver with audio prompts to fasten his or her seat belt. It's a unique implementation, unlike other vehicle safety systems – such as Hyundai BlueLink or On-Star – which use remote telematics to passively track and alert owners when a vehicle exceeds a certain speed or travels outside of a predetermined zone.
Kia's Idle Stop & Go
To make its vehicles more fuel efficient, Kia's Idle Stop & Go technology shuts off the engine on certain models when a vehicle comes to a stop, restarting automatically when the driver's foot lifts off the brake. But Kia isn't alone here. Often called start-stop technology, Ford brought the feature to its 2014 Ford Fusion, and GM is bringing it to the 2015 Chevrolet Impala, just to name a few.
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