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20 Hidden Features You Might Not Know About Your Car

Technologies that previously were reserved for luxury vehicles have become commonplace, even in the most affordable models.

The 1964 Aston Martin DB5 sports car driven by James Bond in Goldfinger was equipped with numerous hidden features that would be of questionable use to the average car owner but that were lifesaving for Bond. The equipment included a hidden telephone, radar tracker, revolving number plates, front turrets, wheel-mounted tire scythes, and of course, the famous ejector seat.

In today’s cars, both high-tech (and some low-tech) features focus more on vehicle safety and making the driving experience more pleasurable. Technologies that previously were reserved for luxury vehicles have become commonplace, even in the most affordable models.

Automobiles are the incubators of rich and robust technology and the rate at which innovations are introduced to the automotive industry only continues to accelerate as costs diminish. The reverse cameras, navigational devices, and touchscreen displays that have become standard features in modern vehicles provide drivers and passengers with more sophisticated and safer rides.

Many car buyers are now asking about such features as adaptive cruise control, smartphone integration for hands-free driving, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warnings, just to name a few. Others have these features on their cars but are either unaware of them or don’t know how they work.

The following are 20 hidden features most people don't realize their cars come with.

20: Umbrella Hidden In The Door

The umbrella is an awkward device (except perhaps the collapsible version) to store anywhere and in a car, it is entirely out of place. It is best stored in the trunk, out of sight and where it doesn’t occupy a seat or leg room on the floor. However, when it suddenly starts raining, a driver who parks their car in the grocery store lot can get soaking wet in just a few seconds from walking to the rear, fumbling with the keys, and opening the trunk to retrieve the umbrella.

Car manufacturer Skoda has the solution: a hidden umbrella in the door panel, where it is out of sight but readily accessible once the downpour starts. The feature is also available in a Rolls-Royce (at a slightly higher price than the Skoda).

19: Volkswagen Beetle Flower Vase

For years, the Volkswagen Beetle came from the factory with a tiny flower vase, blumenvasen, mounted on the dashboard. It’s not clear if the partially hidden vase was inspired by the “Flower Power Hippie” years or placed in the car to confirm the assertion by some critics that the Beetle is a “chick’s car.”

Owners who opted for the flowers usually used fake ones to avoid the watering requirements and withered appearance of real flowers left in the car under the hot sun. The most practical use of the vase was to hold lipstick and pens, easily accessed when the need arose.

18: Adaptable Ambient Interior Lighting

In recent years, more car manufacturers are offering ambient interior lighting as a standard or optional feature. The lighting softly illuminates the car's center console, door handles, cup holders, and on some models, across the dash and in the vehicle's footwells. Most owners are aware of ambient lights in their cars but many do not know that the color can be changed to match the interior design or to create the desired mood.

Although ambient lighting does nothing to improve vehicle safety, studies by BMW and Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany have shown it may increase a driver’s perceived safety. The lighting may also enhance the apparent quality of the car's materials and design and make a car's controls easier to use.

17: Honda Magic Seats

Many owners of economy cars are not aware of a feature that provides hidden load space that can exceed the cargo area of the trunk or hatchback. The Honda Civic and Jazz have the Magic Seat system, which allows the backseat bases to fold up and stand vertically to add load space. It creates an area from the car floor to the headliner allowing objects to transported that otherwise would not fit into the hatch space.

The space is ideal for transporting a small bicycle, beach chairs, large suitcases, a 42-inch flat screen TV, or a medium-sized potted plant (not all at the same time, of course). Other car manufacturers provide similar hidden cargo space.

16: BMW Brake Drying

According to John Cuprisin, Associate Professor Automotive Technology at Pennsylvania College of Technology, exposed disc brakes get wet in a typical rain shower. However, they are designed to hold the brake pad against the rotor with no pressure, no space between them, and no drag. The rotating disc riding between the two brake pads is wiped of contaminants and water.

However, if the pads and rotor are not perfectly aligned, a gap can form and allow water to accumulate, diminishing the friction and braking efficiency. The BMW Brake Drying system, activated by the windshield wiper's rain sensor, moves the brake pads closer to the rotors to keep the brakes dry and improve stopping power in wet weather conditions.

15: Nissan Easy-Fill Tire Alert

Properly inflated tires have a longer life, improve fuel efficiency, and help prevent accidents. Most drivers are not aware that their car is equipped with a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Required on all cars since 2008, the system alerts drivers when their tires have lost 25% of their air.

When tire pressure is low, the process of filling up the tires is tedious: fill the tire, check the pressure, add more air, check the pressure, let some air out, and check the pressure. In a Nissan equipped with their Easy-Fill Tire Alert, the monotonous process is nearly eliminated. Start adding air and when the tire reaches the ideal pressure, the vehicle's horn honks and its lights flash. The only system better would be one with self-regulating and inflating tires. Perhaps next year?

14: Signal Change Warning

Waiting at a traffic signal can seem like an eternity. One driver swore the signal stayed red so long that he had time eat a “Footlong” Subway sandwich, finish a Starbucks Venti Latte, and write three emails before it turned green. Despite claims to the contrary, most signal lights change in less than 120 seconds, according to Taylor Forbush, transportation systems engineer for Utah Department of Transportation.

For those seemingly long waits at red lights, Subaru has developed a solution: a feature in their EyeSight safety system that advises the driver when traffic starts moving again. A small beeping sound warns the otherwise occupied driver (busy with lunch, kids in the backseat, or Volume 2 of the Gulag Archipelago), before an angry honk from the driver out back.

13: Drowsiness Detection

A microsleep is a brief state of drowsy unconsciousness that can occur during driving even while the eyes remain open. For many, it is difficult to determine the onset of sleep and when it is the appropriate time to stop the car and drink some coffee. Several car companies—Mercedes, Volvo, and Nissan among them—have developed a drowsiness detection system to prevent accidents resulting from drowsy driving.

The Volvo system, featuring a rear-facing camera, scans the driver and monitors eye and head movements to sense the onset of sleep. When detected, it alerts the driver. The Mercedes system vibrates the steering wheel when it senses the driver is swerving, and then it guides the vehicle back into its lane.

12: Anti-Lock Braking System

While almost all car enthusiasts are familiar with the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), most car owners have no idea how it works. Nor do they know when the system is activated. ABS wheel speed sensors determine if one or more wheels might be about to lock up during braking. If a lock-up is detected, a series of hydraulic valves are activated limiting the braking on that wheel.

ABS is triggered only in slippery conditions or during a panic stop when a driver slams on the brakes, causing them to lock up. Skidding is prevented and steering control is maintained. In the US, ABS has been a requirement on all new cars built since September 1, 2000.

11: Built-In Hidden Vacuum

According to the US Census Bureau, car owners spend nearly $6 billion a year at car wash facilities. In the last ten years, more than 70% of car owners used car wash facilities instead of washing their cars at home. Perhaps one reason is the inconvenience of lugging the vacuum cleaner out to the driveway to clean the seats and carpets.

The electric cord is never long enough. The hose on a canister style vacuum can’t reach parts of the interior, and the attachments are never the right ones to pull up those fries that fell between the seats six months ago. The Honda Odyssey solves the problem by including a hidden, built-in vacuum with a long-range hose for people who are interested in keeping everything clean all the time.

10: Lighter Aluminum Cars

While most new car buyers are concerned about fuel efficiency, few of them are aware of the hidden contribution aluminum makes. One of the best methods to make vehicles more energy efficient—whether they are powered by diesel, natural gas, gasoline, or electricity—is to reduce their weight. Aluminum is often the material choice because it can be as strong or stronger than steel and weigh much less.

In 2015, the new full-sized pickups from Ford were 700 pounds lighter than the F-Series models from the previous year. Ford’s switch from heavier steel panels to lighter, high-strength aluminum panels is credited with much of the weight reduction. Depending on the engine variation, Ford advertised the new F-150s as being 5 to 29 percent more fuel-efficient than the models they replaced.

9: Lane-Centering Sensors

Although self-driving vehicles still remain in prototype test fleets, many of the features to make them a reality are showing up on new cars. Driver assist systems can autonomously accelerate, brake, or steer and are making highway travel more tolerable and safer. Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and Lane Keep Assistance Systems (LKAS) improve safety by keeping the vehicle in the lane while at speed.

Both technologies make use of cameras mounted behind the windshield to read the lane lines ahead. LDW systems use an audible warning or vibration to notify the driver that they’re crossing over the line, prompting the driver to take corrective action. LKAS requires less driver intervention by physically applying a correction to steering, automatically keeping the vehicle in the lane.

8: Electronic Stability Control

Most drivers are unaware when the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) on their car is activated, even though a dash light showing a tiny car skidding around may be momentarily illuminated.

All cars sold in the US since 2011 are equipped with stability control. When sensors determine that the car is turning too far (nearing spin-out) or not turning far enough (risking running off the road), ESC engages the brakes on one or more wheels to control the turn. The system works not only when a car slips during sharp turns but also when it loses traction on a wet or icy road.

7: Gas Tank Locator

Anyone who has pulled into a gas station for the first time with a recently acquired rental car realizes that they have no idea which side of the vehicle the gas filler cap is on. A wrong guess often requires backing the car up and finding a lane with the pumps on the correct side of the car.

The alternative is to pull the hose all the way around to the other side of the vehicle, although it is often too short to reach. Both maneuvers can be avoided by merely glancing at the dashboard fuel gauge to find a tiny arrow next to the fuel pump figure indicating where the gas filler cap is located.

6: Road Condition Indicators

Auto manufacturers have placed engine malfunction warning lights and door-ajar indicators on car dashboards for years. Now, they are including warnings for dangerous driving conditions. Fog and rain can reduce visibility but perhaps more dangerous is ice, which can render roads so slippery that they are undrivable even at reduced speeds.

A warning light showing a road with a snowflake on it warns that the temperature outside is low enough for roads to freeze. The light is controlled by a temperature sensor located near the front bumper, where it is not affected by the engine’s heat. When the outside air passes over the sensor reaching a pre-programmed temperature, a computer turns on the warning indicator on the dashboard.

5: Computer Driving Assistance

Many car owners may not be aware of all the Computer Driving Assistance features included with their new vehicle or offered as options. Some features are subtle and activate without the driver knowing but others, like parking assistance, are so useful that it is difficult to imagine a driver opting not to use them. Who likes to parallel park? The maneuver is a challenge for even the most skilled drivers, so why not let the car do it?

Downhill assist is an option which automatically prevents the car from unsafely accelerating during descent and some systems use sensors to detect bicycles, pedestrians, and other road hazards. Automatic emergency braking systems will apply the brakes to avoid a collision if the driver’s reaction time is too slow.

4: Hidden Storage

Car manufacturers have spent years developing and refining their automobiles to be efficient—not only for fuel consumption but also for the use of space. Many car models are designed with useful pockets or spaces that may be hidden. The Dodge Journey, for example, has a hidden compartment under the passenger seat, as well as two pockets with removable bins under the floor behind the front row that can be pulled out for cleaning.

The Land Rover Discovery has a storage area for hiding valuables behind a climate control panel. Only crooks that also own a Discovery would know to look there. However, the risk of using these concealed compartments is forgetting they exist, along with the objects stored inside.

3: Hidden Hooks

The hook is perhaps one of the most useful devices invented by humans. Hooks are used everywhere including inside the automobile. However, some of these little devices are not clearly visible to the average driver and if they can be seen, their purpose is a mystery.

SUVs often provide hooks in the cargo area. Some are useful for hanging a shopping bag, so a dozen eggs don’t topple over when a sharp curve is encountered on the way back home from the grocery store. Other hooks maintain a net that prevents cargo from rolling around in the cargo space. Hooks can be found behind front seats, above rear doors, and on the headliner.

2: Conversation Mirror

Manufacturers of many minivans and some crossover SUVs place a small convex mirror overhead that gives the driver a much broader view of activities in the backseat than the standard rearview mirror. It often remains out of sight until pulled down from a compartment mounted on the headliner and it helps the driver keep tabs on kids, dogs, mothers-in-law, and whatever else is along for the ride, all without losing the view ahead of the car for an extended period. However, the mirror does not help spot a highway patrol car in time to slow down and avoid a traffic violation. Other devices perform that function.

1: Enhanced Soundproofing

In recent years, automobile manufacturers have made significant improvements in noise reduction, not only by adding extra layers of insulation around engine and suspension mounts but by using noise cancellation technology. Bose Corporation, the leader noise cancellation for headphones, is also at the forefront of the technology for cars. Their QuietComfort Road Noise Control (RNC) cuts down on sounds electronically.

Accelerometers mounted onto the vehicle continually measure the movements and vibrations that create noise. With that information, the Bose RNC technology projects an acoustic cancellation signal into the cabin using the vehicle’s sound system to reduce overall noise. The result is a much quieter and enjoyable ride.

Sources: Hot Cars, Autotrader, Nationwide, CNBC, and Cars.

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