- Automotive technology is progressing to add new safety, comfort and performance features.
- Many automakers are also improving engine technology to boost fuel economy.
- The biggest trend of 2011 was by far the proliferation of the electric car, which was once viewed as little more than a futuristic dream.
As each year passes, automotive technology advances further - and 2011 was no exception. We've outlined some of the best technological achievements of the past year, highlighting systems that made cars more advanced, faster, more economical and - in nearly all cases - just a little bit smarter.
Inflatable seat belts
Ford's inflatable seat belts were one of the most intriguing safety advancements of 2011. Designed to protect children and other passengers in rear seats, the belts inflate upon impact like airbags and help reduce head, neck and chest injuries. Ford says the belts, which are currently offered in the Explorer SUV and Flex crossover, can inflate in 40 milliseconds and may soon be offered for rear seat passengers in all vehicles globally. According to the automaker, most research participants even said the belts are more comfortable than typical seat belts, which may improve their usage among rear passengers.
Small engines, big power
Small engines producing big power was a major industry trend in 2011 as many automakers worked hard to increase fuel economy without sacrificing acceleration. From Nissan's funky Juke crossover to Mercedes' ML63, many automakers shaved off at least two cylinders under the hood of several new models, often adding turbochargers instead. Fortunately for automotive enthusiasts, many smaller engines now take advantage of new technologies like direct fuel injection to offer horsepower boosts compared to their larger, less efficient predecessors.
Although Ford's innovative SYNC system isn't new for 2011, this year saw the rapid proliferation of similar systems in competitors, including General Motors' MyLink, Kia's UVO and Toyota's Entune. While neither system operates exactly the same, the growing number of infotainment options that display apps, offer Internet radio and seamlessly sync with smartphones proves the technology is here to stay. And while that doesn't mean drivers will be playing Angry Birds in their cars anytime soon, it certainly shows that automotive technology is keeping up with today's increasingly connected world - a major selling point for young drivers used to constant communication and social networking.
Rise of the electric vehicle
The electric vehicle was hardly created in the last 12 months, but 2011 will forever be remembered as the year EV technology finally gained widespread mass appeal. While previous electric car efforts were limited to low-production vehicles like the lease-only GM EV1 and high-dollar Tesla Roadster, this year has seen the sale of more than 13,000 units of the all-electric Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf through the end of November. That's big news for green car advocates who have been pushing the technology for years, and proof that many consumers are willing to spend a little more money to help save the environment.
With tightening fuel economy regulations looming, many automakers experimented with saving weight to boost gas mileage in 2011. Leading the weight reduction charge this year was Mazda, whose highly touted SkyActiv technology is based on using new materials, processes and construction to decrease curb weight, improve structural integrity and boost gas mileage beginning with the upcoming CX-5 compact SUV. But other automakers also joined the weight-saving trend this year, as the new Audi A6, BMW 3 Series, Porsche 911 and Subaru Impreza are each lighter - and more efficient - than the models they replaced.
Electronic driving assists
Although electronic driving aids like traction control have been around for years, several new technologies made their debut or became more popular throughout the last 12 months. One example is automatic braking systems, which several automakers from GMC to Volvo added to a growing number of models in 2011. Featuring a series of sensors mounted in a car's front bumper, automatic braking systems are designed to slow down a vehicle headed for an impending collision if the driver fails to do so. Other new electronic driving aids include torque vectoring, which brakes inside wheels during hard cornering to improve handling, and corrective braking, which reads pavements lines and selectively applies brakes to keep a vehicle from drifting out of its lane.
What it means to you:
You may not even notice all the exciting new advancements hidden under the skin - or the seat belts - of your next new car.