Twelve car gadgets you can't live without

We tell you which gadgets you absolutely can't afford to do without in your next car. Some entertain, some keep you alive, some save you money -- and some help you lose your licence

Rory Reid
7 min read

Still think a car is just for transporting you from A to B? You're wrong, grandpa -- modern cars are teeming with technology. And we're not just talking windscreen wipers. There's enough vehicular gadgetry inside your average motor to make your typical geek froth until they collapse from dehydration.

In case you haven't spotted our funky Car Tech blog and our Car Tech video reviews, we've become very familiar with most types of in-car gizmography. Being the kind souls we are, we've decided to pass this knowledge on to you loyal Cravers.

Over the next few pages, we're going to tell you which gadgets you absolutely can't afford to do without in your next car. Some entertain, some help you stay alive, some save you money on petrol, and some help you lose your licence faster.

So what are you waiting for, ol' timer? Put down the typewriter, stop reminiscing about the war and start checking out the cars of the flippin' future! 

Cars were designed to make life easier for us bipedals. But the mere act of sitting on your bum while being transported between locations is actually more complicated than it sounds. Parking, especially, can be an utter nightmare -- just ask the nearest woman. Then ask the nearest man how difficult it is to do something as simple as read a map. Here, we've picked three of the coolest car gadgets that make those everyday tasks easier to achieve.

Auto parking system

Prius: Parks better than your girlfriend, navigates better than your bloke.
The Toyota Prius does for cool what Hitler did for race relations. That said, its Advanced Parking Guidance System -- also found on the Lexus RX400h -- is utterly superb. Simply find a space, pull up slightly ahead of it, engage reverse gear and marvel as the car parallel parks itself in the gap. Okay, so it's not as quick as a proper driver can be, but it's worth using just to see the look on your passengers' face when the steering wheel starts moving by itself.
See it in action here:Toyota Prius

Intelligent keyless entry

Intelligent keyless entry is possible with standard keyfobs as well as some watches.
Back in the dark ages, car doors were opened by sliding fiddly metal sticks into fiddly little holes. In the slightly lighter ages, somebody invented key fobs, which were great, except they required the user to press a button -- potentially causing RSI in the process. We're too lazy to use any of that nonsense, so thank goodness for intelligent keyless entry. Pioneered by Mercedes-Benz in 1999, it uses key fobs that emit a radio frequency identification pulse to a proximity sensor in the car door. As soon as the driver gets to within 1.5m of the car, the unlocking process is authorised -- turning you into some kind of automotive door-unlocking god. The system is also being installed in watches.
Available on: Jaguar XKR

Voice control

Forget buttons -- just shout commands at the car.
We all like buttons. Hell, one of our favourite Crave articles is about the top 10 off switches. Switches, however -- no matter how cool they are -- aren't much fun in a moving vehicle. Not unless your idea of fun is taking your eye off the road and crashing into a tree. Thankfully, many cars can be controlled by voice. The 2007 Ford Focus CC, for example, lets you adjust the cabin temperature and fan speed, and even tune the radio by voice. The 2008 Fiat 500 lets you select songs by genre, artist or folder by speaking it out loud, and will even read out your text messages from a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone.
See it action here: Ford Focus CC-3, Fiat 500

"Are we there yet?" "No, if we were, we wouldn't still be driving, you annoying little gimp." God bless Daddy -- he had a way with words. Long car journeys cause boredom, tempers flare and next thing you know, you're explaining to a policeman why you left your four-year-old on the hard shoulder. Here are the three coolest gadgets that'll keep you entertained -- and out of jail -- on your next road trip.

Digital TV

Digital Freeview in the Jaguar XF.
Watching Deal or No Deal in your car might seem like something only the Jetson family could do, but it's available right now. We're not just talking about a pre-recorded DVDs either -- several cars are popping up with full-on integrated Freeview digital TV systems. Manufacturers tend to discourage watching while driving, so most will only play the audio portion of the broadcast while the vehicle is in motion. There are ways around this, however, as we're sure your friendly neighbourhood grease monkey will testify.
Available in: Jaguar XF

MP3 playback

The Fiat 500's USB port reads MP3s.
There's half a zillion ways to enjoy MP3 music in your motor. Most of these, including FM radio transmitters and auxiliary inputs, either sound rubbish, or -- in the case of MP3 CDs -- are a pain in the backside. We recommend going for cars with a pre-installed iPod connector, or better still, get a car with a built-in media system. These either contain a built-in hard drive, or a USB port that lets you access your music on the move.
See it in action: Fiat 500

Surround sound

The Jaguar XKR boasts a Bowers & Wilkins Dolby Pro Logic II sound system.
Forget two-channel stereo sounds. If your car isn't packing Dolby Pro Logic II, you might as well be listening to vinyl. Dolby turns stereo audio from music and movies into five playback channels to drown you in sound. Believe it or not, it was a boring old Volvo C70 that first shipped with Dolby Surround Pro Logic in 1997. Rockford Fosgate followed that up with a Dolby Pro Logic II aftermarket product you could install yourself, before the Volvo CX90 4x4 delivered this feature as a factory-fitted option.
See it in action: Jaguar XKR

Inevitably, having a car full of gadgets will distract you to the point where you make a mistake, spin off the road and die. Luckily, scientists have created anti-gadget gadgets -- gadgets that reduce the likelihood of gadgets making you, your passengers and even the people you crash into, dead.

External airbags and passenger-slapping bonnets

External airbags could save lives.
Psychopaths will love Jaguar's Advanced Deployable Bonnet System (ADBS). It waits until it detects the sound of pedestrians' bones snapping against the bumper before popping the bonnet to slap them in the face as they hurtle towards the windscreen. Why? Jaguar reckons raising the bonnet creates a cushioning effect between the engine and the bonnet, which helps isolate the pedestrian from hard points in the engine compartment. Sick puppies. A more sensitive solution -- the external airbag -- is being devised by Toyota, among others. In the event of a pedestrian impact, airbags deploy, cushioning the impact and potentially saving lives. 
Available in: Jaguar XKR

Lane-departure prevention system

Stray out of lane and you might get a ticking off from your car.
Common sense and a functioning pair of eyes should keep most of us from drifting out of our lane, but tiredness, hot girls on the pavement and other distractions all affect our driving. That's where lane-drift-sensing systems come into play. In most implementations, a camera mounted above the rear-view mirror detects the lane markings in front of you. If the system senses that you're about to leave your lane without indicating, it issues an audible warning. Ignore that, and it'll actually apply brakes on the opposite side of the car, helping to bring the car back into lane. Don't worry though -- it'll never take steering control away from the driver, and it usually only activates itself when the vehicle is doing more than about 40mph.
See it in action: Vauxhall Insignia, Volvo XC60

Adaptive cruise control / auto braking

ACC allows the car to follow a specific vehicle ahead of you, accelerating and decelerating automatically.
Adaptive cruise control is where it's really at. This works just like standard cruise control, except it uses radar technology to monitor the road ahead for dangers. Should a car ahead of you do something as idiotic as slowing down, it'll apply the brakes automatically to keep a safe distance. When they decide to speed up again, adaptive cruise control automatically increases your speed to the original pre-determined setting. Volvo's City Safety system is similarly awesome. The driver manually controls acceleration, but the system constantly monitors for cars in front of you whenever you're in a 30mph zone. If you get too close to someone and fail to hit the brakes, it applies them for you. Yes, friends, the days when you can put your feet up as you drive are finally here.
See it in action: Volvo XC60

Petrol prices may be bopping around all over the place, but fear not: there are numerous ways to beat greedy oil companies without resorting to pedal power. Below are three of our favourites.

Vegetable power

Vegetable conversion kits let your car run on used vegetable oil.
Believe it or not, your car can be converted to run on manky used vegetable oil. Obviously you can't just run a hose from your deep fat fryer to your 4x4, but there are several conversion kits you can use that make it extremely simple. This can save you a tonne of cash -- particularly if you can convince your local takeaway to give you used oil for free. Your car will smell like a chippy, though.
Available from: BioTuning

Hybrid power

Hybrid vehicles, like this Toyota Prius, can allow better fuel economy.
The current flavour of the petrol-saving month is to invest in a hybrid car. These vehicles, made famous by the Toyota Prius, use an electric motor and batteries to supplement the performance of their standard petrol engines, which can boost economy and reduce emissions. These vehicles tend to cost much more than those that use a single internal combustion engine, but if you drive a lot, particularly in urban areas, you can save money in the long run -- and do your bit for the environment.
See it in action here: Toyota Prius

Battery power

The Tesla Roadster.
If you absolutely, positively don't want to rely on petrol power, then an all-electric car is the way to go. These bad boys charge their batteries via the mains, before using their electrical engines to get you from A -- and hopefully -- to B. Their performance can often be rubbish, and their range is limited, but if you live in an urban area, you can drive for around a penny a day. Other bonuses include free parking in selected areas, exemption from London's congestion charge, and the fact hippy chicks will love you.
See it in action here: G-Wiz, Tesla Roadster