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Dec. 31, 2019, 5:03 a.m. EST

The top trends in automobile technology to look for in 2020

They’re cool, but which ones do you need?

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By Autotrader


iStock/Getty Images
Sure, it would never happen to you. But back seat reminder systems can save children and pets from being forgotten.

A new year means a slew of new and innovative automotive technology coming to market. As you’re shopping for a new car, it’s important to be familiar with these new features and market trends so that you can be sure you’re making the best decision. Here we’ll take a look at a handful of the new technology and new features offered if you’re coming onto the automotive scene in 2020.

Wireless Apple CarPlay

What is it?

Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -0.68%   CarPlay and Android Auto allow you to use apps like Google Maps, Spotify /zigman2/quotes/207488629/composite SPOT +0.44%  and other native applications from your smartphone through your vehicle’s infotainment screen. Since their introduction, both have required your phone to be connected to the vehicle via a USB cable in order for you to use them. This is starting to change, though, with the introduction of Wireless Apple CarPlay and, to a lesser degree, Android Auto Wireless. Wireless functionality for either of these is contingent upon the vehicle offering a Wi-Fi connection, which is available via subscription in a lot of new vehicles today. Even then, only a handful of automakers -- BMW, Mini and Audi—offer wireless Apple CarPlay currently, while Android Auto wireless is currently only available via aftermarket head units offered by JVC, Kenwood and Pioneer. Expect it to be offered by more automakers in the not-so-distant future.

Why it’s cool

Generally, the fewer wires you have to deal with, the better. A vehicle with both wireless Apple CarPlay and a wireless charging pad will allow you to both charge your phone and use Apple CarPlay simply by placing the phone on the charging pad.

Is it worth the money?

Yes. This feature offers obvious benefits and as it becomes more popular, it’ll likely be included as a no-cost feature in vehicles that come with Android Auto/Apple CarPlay and a Wi-Fi connection.

Back seat reminders

What is it?

In response to heartbreaking stories about children and pets unknowingly left in the back seat of cars on hot days, leading to dire consequences, automakers have begun to incorporate back seat reminder systems into new vehicles. These systems work by taking note of whether you opened the vehicle’s back door before setting off on your trip and then reminding you of this upon exiting the vehicle once you’ve arrived at your destination. The logic here is that you might’ve opened the back door to place something (or more likely, someone) in the back seat, so the system is reminding you to take it/them out again before getting out of the vehicle.

Also see: Honda still on track for at least some kind of self-driving car in 2020

Why it’s cool

We all have busy schedules and days where we’re forgetful, so simple reminders like this are helpful, especially when they help protect our loved ones.

Is it worth the money?

This feature is hardly intrusive and generally comes standard on vehicles that offer it. In our opinion, it’s absolutely worth it.

iOS 13 Apple CarPlay

What is it?

With Apple’s introduction of iOS 13, the latest version of its mobile operating system, Apple CarPlay gets a refresh. The new version of CarPlay comes with a new dashboard that offers a dual-pane view that can show both maps and music at the same time, which keeps you from having to manually switch back and forth between screens all the time—one of the few things we’ve disliked about CarPlay. There are also improvements to Siri, which is now overlaid over whatever app is currently displayed on the screen. The Music and Maps apps also receive a refresh in the interest of improved usability. There’s also a new light mode and calendar integration. Finally, you can now use your phone like a phone even if you’re running CarPlay concurrently, which was previously one of CarPlay users’ biggest complaints, as accessing the basic functionality of your phone meant decoupling from Apple CarPlay.

Why it’s cool

Mobile device technology is generally about a decade ahead of vehicle infotainment tech, so the ability to use your phone through your vehicle’s infotainment system can alleviate a lot of the headaches caused by automakers’ poor interfaces.

Is it worth the money?

iOS 13 is a free update for all modern iPhones and as such, the refreshed Apple CarPlay interface is available to all who update.

Redesigned Android Auto

What is it?

Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.58%   recently rolled out an update for its Android Auto system with a new interface that mimics that of Apple CarPlay. The system starts off in your favorite maps interface, with icons along the bottom that allow you to control music, voice commands and more. A new app drawer looks familiar to the home page on your Android phone. While Apple CarPlay gained a new light mode with its most recent refresh, Android Auto gets a new dark mode. Just like Apple’s setup, this new addition allows the screen to adjust to changing light conditions.

Why it’s cool

Software always improves over time and we’re happy to see that this is the case with Android Auto. The new interface is easier and more intuitive to use, requiring fewer inputs overall.

Is it worth the money?

As with the updated Apple CarPlay interface, the new Android Auto will roll out as an update for all vehicles that currently offer Android Auto compatibility.

Electric performance cars

What is it?

When electric vehicles first hit the scene, the last thing on anyone’s mind was performance. A lot has changed over the years, though, and thanks to the help of automakers like Tesla, /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +0.24%   electrification is now just as much associated with performance as it is environmental friendliness. Each of Tesla’s models now comes in a performance variant offering blistering acceleration. Additionally, the Porsche Taycan electric performance sedan will go on sale in the coming months, while the likes of Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and more have either entered or will be entering the burgeoning performance-luxury electric segment in the very near future. Even Ford /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +3.36%   now has its own Mustang-inspired electric performance car.


Porsche
The new Porsche Taycan.

Why it’s cool

The future seems to be electric, and electric vehicle platforms offer great performance potential due to their low centers of gravity and the instant, on-demand torque offered up by their electric motors.

Is it worth the money?

Maybe. High-performance cars are quite expensive. However, it all comes down to what’s important to you. If a Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette or Audi RS6 Avant is exciting to you, a battery-powered sports car probably will be, too.

Wireless phone charging

What is it?

Just about any new phone offered today comes with wireless charging capability. This means that rather than having to plug it in to charge it up, you can recharge simply by resting the device on a wireless charging pad, many of which are available on Amazon.com /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.62%   for well under $30. With this technology now included in the majority of phones today, automakers have begun integrating wireless charging pads into their vehicles, typically locating them somewhere on the center console.

Why it’s cool

Wireless charging pads eliminate the need for a specific cable and instead work universally across all devices. This eliminates that dreaded scenario where you sit down in the car, realize your phone battery is low and, despite having a long drive ahead of you, don’t have the proper cable to charge it up along the way. The universal nature of the wireless charging pad eliminates this entirely.

Is it worth the money?

Yes. This feature is generally bundled into a higher trim level or some sort of technology package, so you seldom have the option of selecting it as a stand-alone offering. That said, while they can come in handy, wireless chargers can be a little slow and a little finicky—you usually have to position your phone just right to get them to work. Still, we think a lot of buyers will find this feature useful, if only for a quick top-off while out running errands during the day. And anything that eliminates messy cables on the center console gets a thumbs-up in our book.

Genesis Intelligent Assistant App

What is it?

Most automakers now offer a mobile app that allows you to communicate and control your vehicle—to a degree—via your phone. Genesis is one company with a particularly good offering in the Genesis Intelligent Assistant App. Genesis’ app acts as a personal assistant of sorts that can lock and unlock your vehicle from afar, start it remotely, adjust the HVAC system, help update your personal calendar, offer up commute times, recommend gas stations and more. It can even interface with Google and Amazon Alexa, executing commands given through your Google and Amazon devices. The app is also able to contact authorities in the event of a collision or connect you with roadside assistance should you be involved in a less severe mishap.

Why it’s cool

The phones in our pockets are incredibly powerful, so we like to see automakers leveraging their capabilities to make it easier to interact with our vehicles. We live in a connected world, and the cars we drive should be a part of that network.

Is it worth the money?

The Genesis Intelligent Assistant is technically free but requires a subscription to Genesis Connected Services to use, which starts at about $10/month but is discounted if you buy a year’s subscription or more. We’d recommend trying it out first before making any long-term monetary commitment.

Nissan’s variable compression turbo engine

What is it?

Nissan’s /zigman2/quotes/207656007/composite NSANY +4.58%   new “Variable Compression” turbo engine, which the company abbreviates to “VC-Turbo,” first went on sale in the Infiniti QX50 SUV and is now offered in the new Nissan Altima sedan as well. This engine is unique in that it can change its compression ratio at a whim depending on driver inputs. This allows it to return better fuel economy in relaxed day-to-day driving but more power whenever the driver mashes the throttle.

Why it’s cool

Nissan’s variable compression technology means that the VC-Turbo sacrifices less in the trade-off between power and efficiency than your average combustion engine. With the new VC-Turbo engine, the Nissan Altima makes 236 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque while returning an impressive 25 miles per gallon in the city, 34 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg combined, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Is it worth the money?

The optional VC-Turbo engine costs about $2,700 more than the base engine in the 2020 Altima. While this more potent engine won’t be for everyone given its ratio of power to fuel economy, it should appeal to more buyers than the V6 engine offered in the previous-generation Altima.

Electric trucks

What is it?

Electric vehicles offer exceptional torque, which should theoretically make them good for towing. But why are there still no electric pickups on the market? Your guess is as good as ours, but expect this to change in the coming years. Pickup truck startups Bollinger and Rivian are both slated to offer their long-awaited electric pickups for sale by the end of 2020, while Tesla has recently revealed the controversial new Tesla Cybertruck, which the company claims will go on sale by the end of 2021. Additionally, Ford has promised that both hybrid and full-electric F-150s are in development, so expect to learn hear more about that in the coming year as well. And when Ford does something, you can bet that GM /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +5.47%   and Ram will be soon to follow. Electric trucks are coming, and soon buyers will have a lot of options.


Reuters
The Cybertruck, Tesla's first electric pickup truck.

Why it’s cool

In addition to offering great towing and payload capacities, electrified pickup trucks should offer exceptional off-road capability, clever enclosed storage solutions and ports for powering all kinds of tools and accessories off the vehicle’s own battery.

Also see: The 2020 pickup trucks with the highest safety ratings

Is it worth the money?

Maybe. It kind of depends on how reliability plays out. Pickups are one of the most over-engineered products available today and buyers will expect that kind of rock-solid toughness. Just like electric cars, the value proposition of the electric pickup truck will really come down to your individual needs. Expect early iterations of these trucks to carry a steep price premium to take advantage of early adopters, while pricing should get more reasonable as the model years go buy.

Exit warning systems

What is it?

Functioning similarly to blind spot monitoring, these systems work when the vehicle is stationary in a parallel parking spot and alert you of when a vehicle or bicycle is approaching from the rear. The idea here is to keep you from opening your door to potentially disastrous consequences and from keeping your back seat passengers (i.e. children) from doing the same. Currently, exit warning systems are offered only by Hyundai /zigman2/quotes/204364212/composite HYMTF +7.84%   and Audi and are generally in their infancy, but as they evolve down the road, expect them to get more sophisticated and to make their way to more vehicles.

Why it’s cool

This feature leverages automotive technology that’s already been out for a while in the form of a blind spot monitoring in a cool new way that makes day-to-day life a little easier and a little safer.

Is it worth the money?

For any of us who’ve had a close call when opening a car door while parallel-parked on a crowded urban street, we know how valuable this new feature can be for both drivers and pedestrians. We imagine exit warning systems will be bundled in with blind spot monitoring at little to no extra cost, and it’s worth it, in our opinion.

Hyundai Remote Smart Parking Assist

What is it?

Hyundai has recently introduced a clever feature it’s calling ‘Remote Smart Parking Assist’. The system first made its debut on the hydrogen-powered Nexo and is now available on the all-new Sonata, and will certainly make its way to other models in Hyundai’s lineup in the coming years.

Read next: How to choose trim levels and options when buying a new car

The system works like most other automatic parking features, where the vehicle can automatically park itself in either a pull-in or parallel parking spot, but what makes it unique is that it can function without you needing to be behind the wheel. Say you’re at the grocery store and you walk out to your vehicle to find that someone has parked uncomfortably close to it, making it hard to access the driver’s door. Via its own button on the key fob, the Remote Smart Parking Assist feature allows the vehicle to autonomously pull forward or backward out of the parking spot, thus making it easier for you to get in. Additionally, the feature allows the vehicle to pull itself into a parking spot without anyone behind the wheel as well. To eliminate the chance of a collision with a pedestrian or another car during the process, the vehicle’s various active safety features monitor its surroundings and will apply the brakes if they sense anything in its path.

Why it’s cool

While we’re probably further away from fully-autonomous vehicles than most people think, features like Remote Smart Parking Assist leverage technology already found in the vehicle (in this case, the radar, remote start, and pedestrian detection systems) in a new and useful way, inching us closer and closer to that autonomous future, however far away it may be.

Is it worth the money?

Remote Smart Parking Assist isn’t something that’ll change your entire relationship with your vehicle, but it would likely come in handy at least a few times over the course of your ownership, provided you spend the time necessary for learning to use it. At the moment, Hyundai seems to be reserving this technology to its more premium models, like the Nexo and the new Sonata’s top-of-the-line Limited trim. While this feature alone probably shouldn’t be the reason you opt for a more expensive model, it adds a little extra convenience, and at the very least, makes for a fun party trick.

This story originally ran on Autotrader.com.

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