Auto companies are making big advances and big promises.
Newer technologies — such as gesture controls and other hands-free ways to interact with your car, connectivity, innovations in alerts, crash prevention and partly self-driving vehicles — are at the forefront of the minds of automakers and car buyers alike.
Here's what experts say you should know about what’s new or improved in 2017:
NEW TECHNOLOGY AND SAFETY
The 2017 Motor Trend International Auto Show in Baltimore features some of the most popular cars on the road with technologies once found only on expensive, high-end models.
Experts Tom Voelk, an auto writer and the show’s spokesman, and Peter Kitzmiller, Maryland Automobile Dealers Association President, say that some of these technologies are advancements many people don’t know they want.
Despite considerable advances in safety equipment and driver assistance systems, traffic deaths in the U.S. started rising again in 2015. But some automakers have ambitious goals to help prevent most, if not all, fatal crashes in their vehicles within the next 5 years.
Automakers are designing and installing safety systems using radar, lasers and cameras such as Volvo’s “Pilot Assist” technology, BMW's "Driving Assistant Plus" and Tesla’s better-known “Autopilot” system, to name a few.
The technology behind them, like lane-keeping assistance and warning systems, collision warnings and pedestrian detection, radar-assisted or “adaptive” cruise control, emergency braking assistance and even driver drowsiness detection to help prevent collisions are available in even more mainstream cars, like the Honda Civic or Toyota Camry.
Some vehicles also have wireless car-to-car or car-to-infrastructure communication that broadcasts drivers' speed, position, brake status and other data, which can alert drivers within a few hundred yards to hazards on the road ahead.
Kitzmiller said that the jump in technology is very clear for people who haven’t looked at or purchased a new vehicle even within the last two years, starting with “fun technology” like 4G connectivity and Apple and Android hands-free, car-phone systems.
But, Kitzmiller said, safety advancements very rarely sell vehicles by themselves. As the industry fought about airbags, Kitzmiller said, consumers still paid the increased cost. Now it’s standard, and Kitsmiller said he thinks that will become the case for the newer driver-assist technologies seen today.
“People don’t come in and say, ‘I want to buy that car because it has crash avoidance.’ People are focused on connectivity,” because that’s the technology most know, Kitzmiller said.
While Kitzmiller cautions consumers and manufacturers alike about “over-selling” the newer safety features, Voelk echoed that the safety features are rigorously tested by independent researchers and largely proven to assist drivers.
Both warned, however, people still need to drive.
HYBRIDS, PLUG-IN'S AND ELECTRIC VEHICLES
On one hand, the market share for electric cars is minuscule at less than 1 percent. On the other, big automakers are aggressively pushing their electric cars.
The Chevrolet Bolt, Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year (not to be confused with the older-model Volt), has “set a new benchmark for electric vehicles,” the magazine said.
Until recently, most electric cars could travel little more than 100 miles on a single charge. New models such as the Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 will travel 200 miles or more between charges.
Kitzmiller and Voelk say the Bolt, an all-electric sedan with a “more practical” 238-mile range, could be the industry's first step to its most viable electric vehicle yet.
Few consumers, however, are willing to pay a premium, even with thousands of dollars off after federal subsidies and other incentives. Dealers, too, were reluctant to sell them because electric cars require less maintenance, a plus for car buyers.
Though years ago price and lack of a choice in vehicles hindered customer desire to buy into fully-electric engineering, a Camry-quality 200-mile range electric car will cost less than a gasoline Camry by 2022, according to forecasts from Ark Invest.
The Bolt, for example, can be picked up for under $30,000 after tax credits, and more than 40 hybrid and electric vehicles will be on the market in Maryland by the end of the year -- a reason why consumers need to know about them, Kitzmiller said.
For some buyers, “zero emissions isn’t going to fit what they need, but they need to be aware they are a big deal,” Kitzmiller said.
For people who may not want to buy into a fully-electric vehicle, manufacturers are investing in or churning out hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles — including sport utility vehicles — at record rates. Plug-in hybrids allow owners to enjoy the advantages of a shorter-range electric vehicle that can be charged at home but that also can run on gasoline.
Voelk, who lives in Seattle, said he personally sees the practicality of owning hybrid or electric vehicles. He owns a plug-in hybrid Cadillac ELR that he said he took to the gas station just once within the first 9 months of ownership.
“It’s not just green technology, it’s convenience technology,” Voelk said.
Before Tesla, auto executives complained that they were being forced to manufacture cars that people didn’t want to buy, largely because of stricter government mandates on fuel economy (federal regulations call for average fuel consumption for each maker’s fleets to hit 42 miles per gallon in 2020 and 54.2 by 2025).
And then there’s Volkswagen.
The emissions cheating scandal not only will cost the company billions as it deals with a criminal investigation and civil complaints, it also blew up plans at VW and other German automakers to rely heavily on supposedly cleaner diesel engines to help meet clean-air and fuel-efficiency requirements.
As the diesel drama continues, Volkswagen is suddenly a great champion of electrified cars, pledging that a quarter of its sales will consist of electrics and plug-in hybrids by 2025.
“There’s no question that the manufacturers have invested billions of dollars in the new vehicles, the zero-emissions vehicles. It’s part of their product,” Kitzmiller said. “You are going to see more of these vehicles coming out and they’ll be pushing them.”
THE CONSTANTS, THE NEW AND THE RESURGENCES
Automakers continue churning away on their bread-and-butter best sellers, like the Toyota Camry, GMC Terrain and the Honda Odyssey. But they’re also bringing back revamped, re-energized older models for a second life, and giving more attention to the quickly-rising crossover segment.
In Maryland, auto sales are only up a couple of percentage points, including electric vehicles and zero-emissions vehicles and luxury cars, but pickups, SUVs and crossovers outsold cars in 2016, a reflection of American driver’s growing preference for larger vehicles that allow drivers to sit higher off the ground and have more storage, experts said.
Car shoppers — luxury and mainstream alike — have been shifting to roomier crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks for years as gas prices have fallen.
“SUV’s were really popular, then gas prices went up and people went back to cars, but crossovers are growing,” Kitzmiller said. “They’re getting significantly better gas mileage and continue to increase. Gas mileage is no longer dramatically different between smaller and larger vehicles.”
Experts also attribute the growth of crossovers to people who prefer to be higher off the road but don’t want or need the larger SUV’s.
The number of “bad cars” has dropped dramatically, Voelk said, and automakers are pulling out all the stops when it comes to luxury styling in more mainstream brand’s cars, such as the 2018 Hyundai Genesis, 2018 Volvo XC90 or Kia’s 2018 fastback sedan, the Stinger.
Luxury brands also have planted their stake in the SUV market, with the Audi SQ5, Maserati Levante, Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Bentley Bentayga, Jaguar F-Pace and an array of Mercedes G-class developments.
Automakers are advancing the once-stale minivan market too, including the new Honda Odyssey with its 10-speed transmission and new “magic slide” seats, and Chrysler’s plug-in hybrid Pacifica with a 33-mile battery range.
Overall, it’s getting harder to buy a “bad car,” Voelk said, and it’s getting easier to find a car that has all the features you would need, if you’re willing to go outside brand comfort zone.
The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Associated Press contributed to this report.