Benz-onomics as a catchy title has only been around since I wrote it this morning over breakfast. But the idea is decades old. Indeed, based on the past 125 years or so, it is pretty clear that most of the cool stuff we see debut on luxury cars does eventually make its way down the automotive food chain into cars and trucks with less prestigious pedigrees.
The reason for the top-down tech rollout is that fancy automobiles are always rolling testbeds for new technology. Fat-walleted customers demand the latest and greatest tech features, and carmakers try to meet those demands by innovating on seemingly every front. The result? Lots of head-smacking, what-will-they-think-of-next technology that gives the buyer a s sense of being special, and can, when it is really well thought-out, make life on the road safer, more exciting, and/or more comfortable for those who can afford the cars it's found in.
In some cases, it doesn't take long for tech to trickle down. For example, when the Mini Cooper was reintroduced to the world in 2002, it offered nearly every feature--at least as options--that came standard on the BMW 7-Series of the time (BMW owns MINI).
Oh, and for the record, technology also trickles up in some cases, and you'll find we've provided a couple of examples of that, too.
Trickle-Down Tech: SafetySafety technology tends to trickle down the most from high-end brands to the rest of the auto industry, especially within corporate families. For example, the blind-spot monitoring technology introduced by Volvo in 2007 on its S80 sedan made its way to then-corporate-cousin Mazda on its Mazda 6 sedan two years later. By 2010, Ford, which had previously owned Volvo and a stake in Mazda, made the same feature available on its Fusion. Now, the technology is available on most automobiles from the compact segment on up. When one company can spread the development and purchasing costs across several brands, it's overall costs go lower and it can afford to offer it to more people at lower prices.
Many more safety features once reserved for high-end automobiles are being offered in cars priced for all drivers: collision-warning systems, lane-departure-warning systems, lane-drift corrective-steering and headlamps that turn with the steering wheel. Sometimes, as in the case of anti-lock brakes, electronic-stability-control, and backup cameras, these systems prove so effective that the government mandates the the technology in all vehicles.
Look out below! The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class features headlamps that send a warning flash to pedestrians in the vehicle's path at night. It may take a while for this sophisticated LED-based system to spread across the industry, but if it is deemed effective, you can bet the big Benz won't be the last car you'll see it on.
Trickle-Down Tech: ConvenienceLuxury buyers love convenience, but so do regular folks. Power-operated trunk lids, such as those found on Mercedes-Benz sedans in the early 2000s, were once seen as ridiculous. But the close technological cousin, the power tailgate, makes all sorts of sense on Jeep Grand Cherokees and Toyota Highlanders. Ford even took the technology a step further --l iterally-with the foot-operated power liftgate now available on its compact Escape, Edge, Explorer and C-Max crossovers. Just wave your foot under the rear bumper while you have an arm full of groceries and the hatch springs open. Wunderbar!
The same can be said for radar cruise-control, once found only on Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac models 10 years ago, but which now can be found on everything from the 2014 Mazda 6 to the Dodge Durango.
Look out below! Soon, Audi and BMW are expected to introduce systems that interface with traffic lights and electronic road signs, informing you how long a red light is going to stay red, how long the light you're approaching will remain green, and what speed you'll need to go to get into a "green wave" of traffic lights. Infrastructure-to-car communication is not a matter of if it coming, but when.
Trickle-Down Tech: PerformanceLuxury cars don't just sell on leather and wood alone; people pay for performance. Indeed, at a certain price point, performance is not a luxury at all, it is a mandate. But power and handling are not the sole domains of the pricey and prestigious.
High-tech turbochargers, variable valve timing, direct fuel-injection and dual-clutch transmissions have been commonly found around the upper echelon of performance and luxury brands, such as Ferrari, Porsche, Acura, and BMW. Today, it's common to find them on Fords, Chevys, Hondas and Volkswagens as these companies pull out the stops to maximize the fuel economy each car achieves on our daily commute.
Another example of performance-related trickle-down tech is active aerodynamics, an early example of which appeared in 1989 as a deployable rear spoiler (it pops up at certain speeds rather being fixed in place all the time) that helped keep the Porsche 911 on the ground at high speeds. Now, that same design feature is seen on the humble Chevrolet Cruze Eco, which uses active grille shutters to help it slip through the air with less drag on the highway.
Look out below! Lightweight and strong carbon fiber helps reduce weight in exotic supercars, but it can also yield benefits in smaller cars as the industry continues its quest for ever more fuel-efficient automobiles. Expect to see the high-tech material appear in more standard-issue automobiles in the not-too-distant future.
Trickle-Down Tech: Sexy AmbienceFor years, automobile interiors were lit only by the gauges and dashboard lighting. BMW was one of the first companies to cast a warm glow upon its interior from discreet pin lights up in the ceiling. Nowadays, the footwells, door pulls and center consoles of Fords, Hyundais and Toyotas offer at least some form of ambient lighting to subtlely define the interior space at night, help prevent accidental spills or misplacing of items, and increase driver alertness of by reducing eye fatigue.
It also looks sexy.
For years, premium audio brands such as Alpine, Bowers and Wilkins and harman/kardon partnered with luxury carmakers to set the mood in their high-end automobiles. But many happy marriages now exist between such esteemed sound design firms as Fender, Bose, and Infinity and the more affordable car brands such as VW, Nissan, Mazda.
Look out below! Custom scents are the next frontier in automotive spoils. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class offers an atomization system that imbues its cabin with one of four elegant scents. If you don't like theirs, you can install your own favorite perfume, cologne or aromatherapy scent, and dial it up or down in intensity to your liking.
Trickle-Up Tech: Four-Wheel Drive, HybridsTechnology doesn't just trickle down. For most of the last century, four-wheel drive was thought to be best suited to military-spec Jeeps and pickup trucks, with civilian applications not becoming part of the mainstream until the late 1970s when Subaru and AMC offered four-wheel-drive cars that looked like cars instead of Jeeps and off-roaders. Now, four-wheel drive is standard on most Bentleys, many a high-end Mercedes-Benz sedan and nearly every Lamborghini. Of course, in luxury sedans and sports cars, four-wheel-drive is called "all-wheel drive" and the pitch for having it is less about off-road capability and more about performance and safety. Still, the beginnings of all-wheel- drive technology are humble indeed.
Hybrid technology is another example of trickle-up technology. The first mass-produced hybrid was the 1997 Toyota Prius and the shoe-shaped 2000 Honda Insight. These were purely fuel-efficiency exercises, but partial powertrain electrification can also provide an instant boost in acceleration, which is why we see hybrid technology at the heart of Porsche's upcoming 918 Spyder supercar. That car is expected to sell for nearly $850,000. That's quite an upward trickle.
Look out above! Capacitors, the short-term energy storage device such as that which is offered on the 2014 Mazda 6 mid-size sedan, uses brake energy to power accessories, enhancing fuel economy by an estimated five percent. We don't see any reason why this technology can't be used across the industry.