The best car inventions for normal people

by Lorraine Sommerfeld . Jul 08 2016
Getty ImagesThe sliding van door is a marvel of modern engineering.

Getty Images

The sliding van door is a marvel of modern engineering.

I know fuel-injected engines were a major upshift from carburetors, and I appreciate them. The use of lighter materials to get better fuel economy, crumple zones and airbags to save our precious cargo, and windshields that don’t explode like a shattering firework are all spectacular inventions.

But over the past 20 years, the following are the things that have made the biggest difference in how our cars serve us day to day and how our families drive across town or across the country. Some of them were always the purview of those breathing more rarefied air, but now this list is within the clutches of even many entry-level or near entry-level vehicles. You know, the ones so many of us drive.

The sliding door on a minivan:

This concept should have won a Nobel Peace Prize. Young children jack open their doors with a mighty boof not because they are wild animals, but because they are young children. “Yay, we’re here!” coupled with, “I can do my own door” meant a ding in a neighbouring car before a parent was even out of the driver’s seat. Some kids are brats. Some parents are lax. But most kids are just not big-picture thinkers and sliding doors give them a little buffer while they grow up.

Two sliding doors on minivans:

If you’ve done that brutal reach that leaves you and your lower back feeling like a Sherpa who carried a socialite up Mount Everest, you know that the advent of dual sliding doors was almost as glorious as discovering one door could slide. Add the introduction of remote-powered sliding doors on minivans, and I’m not sure my heart can take this trifecta of parenting liberation.

Heated seats:

These got more important for us peasants right around the time that many jurisdictions starting introducing stricter idling bylaws. Most parts of Canada serve up some notorious winter weather, and the days of starting the car and leaving it to warm up for 15 minutes (or more) are long gone. Heated seats give you a near-instant cradle of warmth and allow you to putt along in relative comfort until the car’s heater finally kicks in.

Bluetooth connectivity:

Manufacturers like Hyundai learned early this was a safety feature, and as such, a need-to-have feature, not just a nice-to-have one. With a cellphone in every pocket, it’s antiquated thinking to believe this connectivity should be an option. While I rarely hook up a phone when I’m driving (the stats are right: hands-free is nearly as dangerous as hand-held), nobody should not have the option. And standard USB ports are about more than customized playlists, as well; they’re about a phone being charged when you need it the most.

Navigational systems:

Whether via your phone or in-dash, the advent of this tech was by a terrible breech birth followed by an even worse puberty. Early systems were crap, and I applaud the first adopters who waited out the shotgun marriages of car manufacturers and Silicon Valley until we arrived where we are today. I still hate touch screens (though I’m open to anything that is at least consistent), and I still think we owe it to future generations to show them how to use (and fold) a paper map. There will always be horror stories of people getting lost, but then, there always were. It’s too bad we can’t factor time and fuel saved by getting there correctly the first time into official fuel-economy numbers.

Push-release fuel doors:

Yay! If I never have to hunt for a fuel release lever again, it’ll be too soon. Especially to find it on the floor covered in slush or a floor mat, or stuck behind the shifter which hides it when it’s in park. Ford got here first in the mainstream, and by doing away with gas caps altogether they made me very happy. Remember finding out the narrow plastic tether on your gas cap is broken? And watching your gas cap roll under the car? Yeah, that. No thanks.

All of these inventions lead me to my No. 1 question, one apparently I will still have when they pluck my cold dead fingers from my keyboard: why can’t the vast majority of manufacturers sort out the fundamental problem they have with their daytime running-light systems? Why am I still seeing so many dark rear-ends on cars of drivers who do not realize they don’t have their full lighting system on?

It’s easy to blame drivers for not understanding how their cars work, but automakers share the blame because they light up the cars’ dashboards with just the daytime running lights on, and for decades, the lit-up dash was the first, best visual clue to drivers that their full lights were on.

Automakers take note: please toggle the wiring harness to respect that rear visibility is just as important as forward visibility and do not light up the dash unless a full lighting system has been activated, either by a driver or an automatic setting. And be consistent across your brand, like Mercedes-Benz.

We’re spoiled with levels of safety and comfort and entertainment from all over the automotive spectrum, but when it comes to lighting systems, most of you carmakers need to get your lit together.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016