Every modern car is the most complex and powerful mechatronic system average consumers purchase. I know I’m young, but I think I can still positively say automotive technology has come a long way in the past decade. It could be because I’ve primarily driven a 1994 Chrysler Concorde since I got my license, but driving a 2008-model car is an entire new experience.
After a couple days of shopping and test-driving the Toyota Matrix, Subaru Impreza 2.5i 5-door, Mazda3 5-door, Pontiac Vibe and the Honda Fit Sport, I was relatively tired and sick of car shopping. Following a pushy salesperson turning me off to one dealership, I went to a Honda dealership expecting to see a car that was too small for what I needed – the Honda Fit. Yes, out of the variety of cars I looked at, it is by far the smallest car with the smallest engine, but moreover, it also has the lowest price, and ultimately it’s the car I chose. The car has front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, and the handy features like power locks and windows, fuel door open indicator – and I left out many for brevity, but amazingly these are all standard on the base model.
No doubt it’s a complex system, but then consider the standard Honda Drive-by-Wire system – your gas pedal is an electronic position sensor throttle control, rather than the normal mechanical cable or even newer hydraulic control of the throttle. A novel feature of the automatic transmission on the Sport model is the paddle shifters (yes, paddle shifters) located on the steering wheel. Switching gears doesn’t require any movement of the gas pedal. Simple tap into a different gear and with near no delay the car adjusts the throttle as necessary, changes gear and returns to the best match of how far your foot is depressing the gas pedal. To be honest it’s very mindless (good or bad), and I always think, when will car makers ditch the pedals and steering wheel all together? How about a joystick? At a whole different level, how about only inputting your final destination? I know we’re getter closer with autonomous vehicles like those in the DARPA Urban Challenge (like the GM-sponsored Carnegie Mellon vehicle).
Imagine controlling a car with a Windows PC: throttle, valve timing, speed, stability, position, and more. “Oh no, a BSOD while driving on the highway!” (Most current cars use firmware-based engine control units for this and other reasons.) Albeit potentially scary, I think it’s pretty cool that a computer will help me drive safer and more efficiently.