Last year, I wrote about an article about having a teen driver. Afterwards, the folks over at Chevrolet contacted me and wanted to share some of the automotive technology they’ve been implementing in their new vehicles. I’m always a sucker for new tech, so I agreed to drive one of their 2016 Suburbans for a few days and check it out.
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I own two vehicles, the newest of which is 13 years old. My Durango boasts a working tape deck, and my Jeep has crank windows. I love technology and have more gizmos and gadgets than you can shake a selfie stick at, but the pinnacle of my car tech experience was when I borrowed my mom’s minivan that sported not one, but two remote-controlled sliding doors. I’m just saying, nobody’s confusing me with Elon Musk.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to new technology. You can spend an evening perusing the owner’s manual, or you can poke at buttons until something happens. Historically, I’m of the poke and fiddle tribe, but settling behind the wheel and seeing buttons and dials coming at me from all directions, I had to rethink that approach. When you press the “Start” button and have not one but two screens flashing information at you, it’s worth reconsidering how technically adept you really are, particularly when you’re going to be piloting one of the largest passenger vehicles on the road with your family inside. Time to pop open the glove box and pull out the giant tome that lay within. Or was it?
As I’m sitting there staring at a control panel full of tech that would make the Falcon 9 jealous, while my wife was thumbing through the owner’s manual, I remembered the MyChevrolet app the PR rep had mentioned in our e-mails. After some initial frustration with registering and a phone call with Chevrolet support, I was able to log in. I poked around a bit, when what should I come across but a section titled, “Owner’s Manual: Explore.” Using the well-organized menu structure, we were finally able to resolve our confusion about one of the vital components1 of the Suburban–how to control the Rear Seat Entertainment (RSE) System.
1If you don’t think it’s important, then why would Chevy bother creating an acronym for it? Hmm? I rest my case.
So, for the next 20 minutes, our trip to get some Sweet Fire Chicken from Panda Express long forgotten, we read, poked, flipped, switched, and tapped everything we could find. And, over the next four days, we learned all there was to know about the technology available in the 2016 Chevy Suburban. Starting with:
I’m a tech nerd; of course I started with the app. And the first priority–after getting my Lord of the Rings Blu-ray playing, of course–was to make sure everyone was hooked up to the in-vehicle wi-fi. The Suburban includes OnStar 4G LTE wi-fi, which, as of March 3rd of this year, you can get as an unlimited plan through AT&T for only $20/month. As a household with two teens, one of whom took a recent trip out-of-state for a wrestling tournament and decided to watch YouTube videos the entire time on his $10/GB Google Fi plan, the wi-fi was a godsend.
Movie playing and SnapChat chatting, we were ready to hit the road. Once again, it was back to the app to map our drive and send it to the impressive 8″ in-dash touchscreen. The navigation features were comparable to what I was used to from Google, and I didn’t notice any difference from what Google was providing in regards to traffic alerts. This was actually one of the few times we used the built-in GPS navigation system, though. Turns out, there is a much better way.
Before I get to that, it’s worth mentioning the other features of the app. You can check the status of your vehicle including oil life, mileage, tire pressure, and fuel levels and efficiency. You can also get help, request roadside assistance, schedule service, find where you parked, and my personal favorite, the Key Fob, which you can use to lock and unlock doors, start and stop the engine, and activate the horn and lights. It’s hard to overstate the euphoria of arriving at an air-conditioned vehicle when you’ve been walking around for hours in the insane heat of southern Arizona.
Note that it may be illegal to run your vehicle if you’re not in it. Be sure to check your local and state laws.
OK, now we were ready to hit the road. I plugged in my phone to one of the many USB ports scattered throughout, but instead of just the normal “charging” message, it prompted me to install:
As it turns out, the 2016 Suburban is one of over a dozen Chevrolet vehicles that supports Android Auto, Android’s car interface. With larger buttons and a minimal look, Android Auto takes all of the features you want while you’re driving and puts them into on easily navigable interface. Maps, music, calls, and texts were all now available on the Suburban’s built-in 8″ touchscreen. Most importantly, every feature was voice-enabled, allowing the driver to keep their eyes on the road.
Being in a strange city while on vacation, GPS navigation becomes a necessity. Hopping in the car, plugging in my phone, and saying, “OK Google, navigate to Eegee’s2,” has become second nature to me, so I always used Android Auto instead of the built-in GPS navigation of the Suburban. However, with Chevrolet supporting Android Auto, I didn’t have to give up the large touchscreen and the audio integrated into the entire vehicle’s system. Little things like having the climate control fans turn down when I say, “OK Google,” so that the system understands me make the integration a major improvement over just using the Android Auto app on my phone.
2 Try it if you’re ever in Tucson. You’ll thank me later.
When it comes to music, while the Sirius satellite radio is leaps and bounds an improvement over channel surfing local stations, sometimes you just want to listen to your own music. Android Auto provided me the entirety of my Google Play Music library, easily accessible via simple voice commands. And, with the unlimited 4G LTE wi-fi, I wasn’t limited to choosing between the songs I had downloaded to my phone or a giant data usage bill. We have a family subscription to Google Play Music, which provided us access to all of the music available through their service, but if you aren’t a subscriber to that service, Android Auto also support Pandora, iHeart Radio, and Spotify.
In fact, at last count, Android Auto supported over 50 apps that provide not only music, but also messaging services. You can use the built-in Android messaging services or one of the third-party services to send and receive texts and calls while on the road. Auto-reply makes it easy to stay focused on the road by automatically replying to any text message you receive with a custom message such as, “Driving now. Text you back later.”
Finally, under all of these features, you still have the Google search engine, allowing you to answer those all-important road questions like, “OK Google, how far is it to Phoenix,” or, “OK Google, what was Doc Holliday’s real name,” or, “OK Google, what is 2 plus 2 plus 12 times 4 to the seventh power,” which, despite lyrical evidence to the contrary, is actually 196,612 and not 22,000. However, if you do find yourself counting telephone poles, you’ll love the Suburban’s:
Integrated Safety Features
If you’re like me and have eschewed the purchase of a new vehicle for over a decade, the technology you’ve missed out on is not limited to just the entertainment systems. Amazing strides have been made in the areas of safety and driver assistance, and while I feel these technologies are simply steps along the path to the pinnacle of automotive tech, the self-driving car, they are steps that are improving driver and passenger safety for not only the occupants of the vehicles equipped with them, but for everyone on the road.
The first safety feature kicks in before you even get on the road. Unfortunately, I found it is the least useful feature in the system. The Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) system detects cars up to 65 ft. away that may be crossing behind you as you back up. Theoretically, this is helpful in parking lots where you can’t see beyond the vehicles parked on either side of you. During my testing, however, I found several flaws in this system.
First, the system did not work with pedestrians or cyclists. I put the vehicle in reverse and started slowly backing up while I had my son run down the sidewalk approaching the driveway. Never once did the system trigger. As someone who lives in a suburban neighborhood right next to a school, this would have been a fantastically useful feature if it worked with pedestrians. Second, the system doesn’t work in a parking lot when you’re parked at an angle. While I was backing out of a parking spot at the grocery store, the system didn’t go off until the car that was coming down the lane was just a few feet from me. While it should go without saying that vehicle sensors are no replacement for eyes and ears, I would worry about a driver becoming dependent upon technology that is untrustworthy, and if I were to give this vehicle to my child, I would likely turn this feature off.
According to a report from AAA, my experience was not outside the norm.
In fact, the only instance I can imagine trusting the RCTA system is backing out of your driveway directly into the road, which I would never do anyway, as backing into the driveway or a perpendicular parking space is so simple with the rear-view camera. As someone who always either backs into a parking space or pulls through two spaces so I can always exit without having to back out, I was concerned how I was going to continue this practice with a vehicle that is so much larger than mine and with which I wasn’t familiar. The rear vision camera put those fears quickly to rest. It not only showed what was behind me, but provided guidelines for parking that adjusted as I moved the steering wheel. Parking became a breeze, and I was able to back the Suburban to within inches of the garage so the vehicle was fully off of the sidewalk. I can see this being particularly useful for anyone whose children like to leave things lying in the driveway or who need to attach a trailer, but more importantly, the wide-angle lens provides an added level of comfort when backing up in areas of high pedestrian traffic.
Now that you’re safely on the road, what’s in front of and around you becomes the focus of the assistance systems. The first system is also the most difficult one to test, as I had no desire to go barreling into a car in front of me. However, I was able to test the first part of the system regularly, and the second part by accident. When you are following a vehicle too closely, the Forward Collision Alert (FCA) system will change the icon on your dash and in the heads-up display from green to amber. I expected this system to be too conservative and to end up driving around all the time with an amber light, but it was surprisingly reasonable–at least when I remembered to adjust it to the traffic conditions. If you have it set for faster speeds, and thus longer distances, and then start driving in the city, it becomes pretty useless.
The second phase of the system is when you are approaching a vehicle too quickly. This proved impossible to test intentionally. The system is apparently smart enough to determine that the car in front of me is traveling at an adequate speed for how quickly I’m approaching them, and I could never get it to trigger by driving in a way that I felt safe doing on the open road. However, I can verify the system does work. While heading back from a day out on the town, I was following a car whose driver apparently forgot where they lived until they were just a few dozen feet from their turn. As they slammed on the brakes and flipped on their turn signal, my seat immediately began to vibrate and the HUD flashed a red warning light. It was definitely enough to make someone sit up and pay attention if their mind had wandered.
Had I failed to heed these warnings, the final forward system, the Front Automatic Braking (FAB) system, would have kicked in. When the FAB detects a vehicle ahead that you may be about to rear end, it can provide a boost to the braking or even automatically brake the vehicle. While I recognize the potential of such a system, I have to say that just in my short testing, the FAB system triggered once, and it was a false positive. I was driving on the highway at night, and I was going through an area of construction. As I climbed a hill, on my right was a concrete barricade with reflective panels on it. When the road began to curve, the system triggered, turning off my cruise control and startling me enough that my exclamation woke up my wife. While I can see the value in such a system when it works well, this is one of those things that still needs improvement.
One final feature that is worth mentioning is the auto brightening headlights. The sensors scan ahead to be sure that you are not following anyone and that there are no vehicles coming towards you in the opposite lane, and if everything is clear, the system turns on your brights. Driving New Mexico and Colorado highways in the middle of the night, never knowing what kind of creature might be waiting to jump out in front of you, it’s a good idea to keep your brights on as much as possible. The auto brightening headlights allow you to do this without endangering other drivers on the road. Be aware, however, that if you are traveling where there are frequent curves and staggered traffic, the constant on and off again of the bright headlights might become bothersome. While not the average driving conditions, the stretch of road below where the lights switched back and forth 10 times in 27 seconds was not exactly an anomaly, either.
Side to Side
I saved my favorite assistance feature for last. If this were something I could buy aftermarket and add to my current vehicle, I’d do it tomorrow. It’s a three-part system that includes the Lane Change Alert (LCA), the Lane Departure Warning (LDW), and the Lane Keep Assist (LKA) systems.
The LCA is a system of sensors that detect vehicles in the lanes next to you, both in your blind spot as well as vehicles that may be entering your blind spot shortly. When a vehicle is sensed, a light appears on the mirror in that lane. If you turn on your signal in an attempt to change into that lane while a vehicle is detected, the LCA light will begin flashing. While it’s always recommended to check your mirrors and over your shoulder before changing lanes, having this alert system in place is an added level of comfort.
The LDW system senses the edges of the lane you are traveling in and alerts you when you cross over a lane without signaling. The LDW system is not triggered if you have your turn signal on in the direction the lane is sensed. However, before the LDW system is engaged, the LKA system can gently turn the steering wheel away from the lane being sensed and back into the middle of your lane. Chevrolet was clear to include a number of warnings in the owner’s manual about this feature to be absolutely certain that nobody mistakes it for self-driving, but it’s definitely a baby step towards it. If you enjoy looking at the countryside you’re traveling through, and even counting the occasional telephone pole, lane drift is a real risk. While I wouldn’t let go of the wheel and start taking pictures or anything like that, feeling that gentle nudge under your hands when you’re gazing at a New Mexico landscape is reassuring. My only problem with the LKA is that I noticed it was much more effective on the right side than the left. When I approached the lane marking on the left side, my tires were nearly on the line before the system engaged. This is another one of those systems like the FAB that I think will need to be improved upon, and if you do notice an issue like this, I highly recommend scheduling a service appointment. My guess is that the sensor is probably adjustable.
Seriously, there’s more?
Honestly, I could probably write another 3,000 words just about the convenience features like the adjustable steering wheel, pedals, mirrors, and countless other devices that you can save to a personal setting and quickly revert back to with the touch of a button. However, there’s just one I want to mention before I go. As someone who lives in Colorado and frequently travels to Arizona, I get to endure both ends of the weather spectrum. And while I’m lucky enough to be familiar with the joy that is a heated seat in the middle of a Colorado winter, nothing could prepare me for the pure bliss of slipping behind the wheel of a vehicle in the middle of a scorching Arizona day directly onto an air-conditioned leather seat. If you are not fortunate enough to have experienced such a thing, I tried to capture the feeling for you: