Automotive technology has been improving by leaps and bounds as of late, but it's really blowing up for the 2014 model year. In seemingly every segment, automakers are racing to be number-one in cabin tech, because they know that today's drivers expect seamless technology integration on the road. That's why this year's Los Angeles Auto Show kicks off with the Connected Car Expo, an industry-wide conference focusing on present and future in-car technology. To help you keep all the latest tech features straight, we've put together our must-have technology features for 2014, including an honest value appraisal for each gadget. 

Bluetooth Audio

What It Is

Leveraging the same Bluetooth technology that lets your phone operate wirelessly through the audio system, Bluetooth Audio lets you play music from your phone, as well.

Why It's Cool

You can keep all your familiar playlists and enjoy them on your car's speakers, without having to plug anything in or transfer your songs to a different device or medium. Some stragglers still offer phone-only Bluetooth, and we can tell you that it's always a bummer when we connect our Bluetooth phones in a test car only to find that the audio function is AWOL. It's truly a must-have feature in this day and age.

Is It Worth the Money?

Almost certainly. You can find models here and there that only offer Bluetooth audio in expensive options packages. But for the most part, it's widely available for 2014 and well worth specifying. 

Smartphone App Integration

What It Is

Technology that allows smartphones to connect to the in-car infotainment display, powering useful on-the-go apps such as Pandora Internet radio and many more, depending on the car.

Why It's Cool

While Bluetooth Audio allows you to wirelessly listen to music from your device, App integration adapts the interface to your car. For example, Bluetooth Audio allows you to hear to Pandora, App integration allows you to control Pandora from the car's radio or nav screen.

App integration is increasingly prevalent even in price-conscious segments (e.g., the new 2014 Toyota Corolla offers it), and for good reason. Today's car shoppers love their smartphones, and they don't want to set those handy apps aside while they're on the road. Since so many apps are useful for drivers -- whether you want to check movie times, reserve a table at a restaurant, you name it -- it just makes sense to incorporate them directly into a car's central display screen, often with enhanced features. There's also a safety angle here; the 2014 Honda Accord, for example, will let you thumb-up/down a Pandora song without taking your eyes off the road. We expect this kind of functionality to become more common going forward.

Is It Worth the Money?

For tech-savvy car shoppers, probably so. But consider this: Your smartphone doesn't need app integration to help you on the road, particularly if you have Bluetooth Audio, which permits apps such as Pandora and Google Maps to stream audio directly to the speakers. 

Text-to-Speech Reading Technology

What It Is

A Bluetooth-based feature that reads text messages (and emails, in some cases) aloud over the speakers in a digitized voice.

Why It's Cool

It lets drivers stay connected in real time without having to look down at their phones.

Is It Worth the Money?

If you receive frequent correspondence via phone -- and let's be honest, who doesn't? -- this is potentially a very handy addition, and it usually comes bundled with other desirable features that you want anyway. But keep in mind that there are also third-party solutions such as the DriveSafe.ly app that provides similar functionality in cars with Bluetooth audio. 

Infotainment "Favorites"

What It Is

A feature pioneered by GM's MyLink, IntelliLink and CUE infotainment systems that lets you bookmark things you like (locations, songs, radio stations and even contacts in phone) all on the same screen, without being constrained by separate categories.

Why It's Cool

Traditionally, radio presets lived in the "radio" tab, phone favorites were in the "phone" section and so forth. This breaks down those arbitrary walls, allowing all your favorites, regardless of type, to be accessible from the same handy menu. It's both more efficient and more consistent with the "have it your way" ethos of the digital age.

Is It Worth the Money?

That's a bit of a trick question, as GM is the only manufacturer offering flexible "favorites" as of this writing. But it's definitely a must-have feature once you start using it, and we hope other manufacturers will soon follow GM's lead. To wit, one topic of conversation at this year's LA Connected Car Expo is whether uniform infotainment standards could allow future drivers to enjoy such no-brainer features across all brands. 

Fancy Seats

What It Is

Many formerly high-end seat functions have trickled down to affordable segments: Heated front seats are common, heated rear seats aren't unheard of and features such as ventilation, power adjustments, memory and even massage functions are also increasingly available. Believe it or not, you can get heated rear seats in the compact Hyundai Elantra sedan.

Why It's Cool

Hey, why should high-tech seats be reserved for high-buck vehicles? The technology revolution has brought such niceties into reach for everyday car shoppers, and that means real progress in driving comfort.

Is It Worth the Money?

That depends on personal preference, of course, but we expect features such as height and lumbar adjustments in any modern car. Massage functions are a different story, but heated seats are definitely a must-have for folks in colder climes. 

Mobile Wi-Fi

What It Is

Automakers such as Audi and Chrysler are leading the way with infotainment systems that include Wi-Fi hotspot functionality, enabling Internet access for multiple devices from the road.

Why It's Cool

If you need to do work on the go, this is a great way to get it done without having to stop at a coffee shop. As long as you've got service, you can just pull over wherever you are, bust out your laptop or tablet and start cranking. It's great for passengers, too, particularly on a road trip. Monthly data charges apply, of course.

Is It Worth the Money?

If you don't already have a mobile data plan for that iPad or what have you, then, yes, this is a brilliant solution to the problem of working from the road. And even if you do, the ability to provide a hot spot for multiple devices could be a boon for family road trips and the like. The data bill will effectively inflate your monthly payment, however, which may give some shoppers pause. 

Active Driving Aids

What It Is

You may be familiar with audible alerts that warn you of cars in your blind spot and such. But for 2014, we're seeing more cars than ever with "active" driving aids that can automatically apply steering, throttle and/or brake inputs to keep you in your lane and out of trouble.

Why It's Cool

Because as long as these systems work as intended (and we have little reason to suspect they won't), accidents -- and thus, injuries and deaths -- will undoubtedly be reduced. Even if a driver is fully focused on the road ahead, mistakes can still happen, and today's numerous distracted-driver issues only compound the problem. Some drivers will naturally resist having their authority usurped by computers, but we're convinced it's for a very good cause.

Is It Worth the Money?

From a safety standpoint, absolutely. Right now, however, these systems are typically offered as separate options or packages, and we couldn't blame anyone for wanting to save a few bucks. But if you look closely at active driving aids, you'll catch a glimpse of the self-driving cars that await us in the years ahead. It's a matter of when, not if, and this is another automotive technology topic that the 2013 Connected Car Expo will cover in detail.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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