It’s a brave new world for the auto enthusiast

The interests of the automotive enthusiast have changed in the last decade. That change is mostly due to more complicated engine designs, which preclude do-it-yourself maintenance work. Thankfully, however, these new, high-tech engines come with lots of components tinkerers can modify and upgrade.

Here’s the problem we’ve faced: When certain luxury automakers place a panel of plastic molding on top of the entire engine bay, they make it very clear they prefer that you to take your car to the dealership for maintenance. For the average driver, this heightened complication makes it difficult even to change your own oil. Still, for those intrepid folks who would like to eek more power out of their vehicle, there are options.

Every new vehicle sold operates using an ECU, or engine control unit. Those in the know have been modifying the erasable, read-only memory in these units. A chip can be swapped out, which can change the air-fuel mixture, alter the amount of fuel that is delivered, and raise the shift points, all in the name of more aggressive acceleration. Some contend that“chipping” a car results in improved fuel economy. But isn’t that extra 10-10 horsepower really just providing more thrills?

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The increasing complication of engines and engine systems, in concert with the addition of Bluetooth smartphone streaming capabilities, has resulted in a newfound attention to driver interface systems. Ford led this charge by teaming up with Microsoft to create the SYNC and MyFordTouch systems. Though clunky at first, this spawned a boom of user-interface infotainment systems from other automakers, such as Chrysler’s Uconnect, Chevy MyLink, Toyota Entune, and others.

As smartphone and man become more and more inseparable, automakers are racing to find the best method of incorporating the newest technology. Consider that designing and manufacturing a new vehicle can take as much as seven to ten years and you’ll understand the challenge: An entire smartphone revolution has occurred in that time. Automakers have adapted by leaving the development of in-car tech as one of the last steps in vehicle development, hoping to harness the newest technology.

This is still not fast enough. Automakers have, in the last year or two, brought to market vehicles equipped with Pandora streaming radio. Just as these vehicles are going on sale, new music apps—like Spotify—are becoming available, making Pandora potentially obsolete. There is no telling what could replace both Pandora and Spotify next, or when it will happen, and that presents a problem for automakers.

The best possible solution to address the speed of this change is “mirroring” technology. The idea behind mirroring is that the features, and perhaps even the interface, of the smartphone could be replicated on the vehicle’s in-car touchscreen. This feature would allow automakers to avoid sinking time and money into developing technology for every specific application.

Because this mirroring tech will likely prevail, the opportunity for app developers to create driving-specific apps becomes apparent. A developer working on an app like GasBuddy, which tracks the best fuel prices in your area, would then have the opportunity to be at the driver’s fingertips. Developers will continue to find apps that make the commute and general driving experience better. These tech gurus constitute a new breed of “tinkerer” who will become hugely essential in the years to come.

If you break it down, the gearhead has always been interested in the latest technology. It just so happened that in the muscle car era, the most cutting-edge technology was the engine and its many induction methods. As the leading technology changes, so does the interest of the participants.

We will always have those who know their way around a four-barrel carburetor and can extract horsepower from any engine. Those individuals should be celebrated, just as much as the new techies of the automotive world should be embraced.