Tech advancements in cars tend to jump forward in major leaps, and then slowly improve over time. One example of that is an automated liftgate, which I tested for the first time in a Ford Escape a few years ago. Carrying a heavy load of groceries in one hand and a laptop bag in the other, you can kick your foot under the rear of the car and the liftgate will pop open.
The problem is that it’s hard to know where you can kick your foot, and for someone borrowing the car (or, say, testing it for a week as a journalist), you may not even know the feature exists or that it is available at that trim level.
In a recent test of the 2019 Chevy Blazer, I found one simple light in the back of the vehicle – unique to the Blazer, as far as I know – helped me use the liftgate feature. It was particularly useful at night when it’s not obvious where the rear bumper is even located.
Automated liftgates debuted at a time when something like that seemed almost magical. Showing it to a few friends way back in 2013 with the Escape, I remember them standing around with shocked looks not knowing how it worked. (In truth, it’s a simple motion sensor that detects your foot.) A few even tried it and laughed about how cool it all seemed.
Lighting the way
Fast forward to 2019 and it seems like every other car these days use an automated liftgate. I’ve seen it on several Ford and Chevy models lately. On the Blazer, it’s enhanced by a simple light that shines down on the group showing the Chevy logo.
When you approach the car, the Blazer senses the keyfob in your pocket automatically and turns on the lights all around the car, including the one below the liftgate. It’s much easier to see the bumper and kick your foot under that area, and it’s also a signal to any new driver or someone borrowing the car that this feature is available.
After several tests, I realized how useful it is to always push your foot under the same area. You can do the same maneuver again to close the liftgate.
This points to a trend with automated cars and future autonomous driving. Signaling is an important part of tech advancement in cars – letting drivers know what is available with subtle cues. Let’s say future cars will be able to open the door when you approach or by a voice command. A tiny light in a display on the side of the car or also pointing down to the ground indicating that this is possible will help. It will make adjusting to robots easier.
Other interface cues will guide drivers – say, a pulsing icon in the dash that lets the driver know it’s OK to use full automation mode because there isn’t too much traffic, or some kind of holographic display to help you adjust the settings for automated mode.
These cues will be far more important as we enter an age of more robotics and automation. In cars from just a few years ago, we didn’t need these tips and clues, because the vehicles were not that advanced. As more automated features debut, especially ones that we’ve never seen or used before, it will be much more important for automakers to guide us.
On The Road is TechRadar's regular look at the futuristic tech in today's hottest cars. John Brandon, a journalist who's been writing about cars for 12 years, puts a new car and its cutting-edge tech through the paces every week. One goal: To find out which new technologies will lead us to fully self-driving cars.