Lifestyle Guides

Van technology: what’s the latest?

van driving along a road

What do Formula One cars and vans have in common? Not a huge amount at first glance – after all you’d struggle to get an 8x4 plywood sheet into Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. 

But the technology, developed at huge expense, tends to cascade down to regular production vehicles. In this feature, we look at some of the latest tech developments which are now becoming commonplace on the latest vans.

Connectivity

Let’s start with the latest buzzword. The major manufacturers have their own versions of what may look like simple telematics systems (to monitor vehicle and driver behaviour remotely) but are actually more than this. 

Ford Pass Connect

An onboard modem allows a wealth of features designed to make vehicle operation more efficient, working in conjunction with a smartphone app. It includes:

  • Local hazard alerts (roadworks etc)
  • Live traffic updates
  • Fuel reports
  • ‘My Journeys’ trip reports, with driving style optimisation tips
  • Remote vehicle monitoring to check critical things like tyre pressures and fluid levels
  • Health alerts that tell you when a light bulb has failed for example 

Volkswagen WEConnect Go

Another smartphone linked system, featuring:

  • Journey and fuel cost recording
  • Driving style analysis and tips
  • Technical and fault data transmitted to dealer prior to a service or repair visit
  • Parking location recorded and retrievable by the driver

Mercedes PRO Connect

A modular system using 100 sensors on the vehicle. Some features are free to use for life or for a limited period and others are subscription based. Information is visible remotely, on a smartphone, or on the multimedia display in the cab. This includes:

  • Core parts monitoring and alerts (eg brake pad wear)
  • Vehicle location available on a map for monitoring at base
  • Fuel economy reports
  • Remote task assignment
  • Theft warning and geofencing
  • Remote vehicle access
  • Driver style analysis
  • Live traffic information

Multimedia displays

The majority of new vans have colour touch screens (some up to 10in in size) which allow access to a host of features. Basic ones will usually control the audio system and Bluetooth connectivity, but many now offer smartphone integration such as ApplePlay and Android Auto, and third party apps such as Spotify can be installed. 

The screen has other uses, with satellite navigation being an obvious one. Advances are being made here too, with Mercedes-Benz now using the ‘What3words’ system for destination entry (every three metre square location on the planet has its own three word address). This makes for much more accurate address locating and simpler entry into the system (by voice recognition, when specified).

Reverse cameras allow for safer, easier manoeuvring but even these have been enhanced with the advent of 360 degree vision cameras. These offer a view as if you were looking down vertically from an overhead position. 

Safety systems and driver assistance technology 

Vehicle manufacturers have a love affair with acronyms – they tend to refer to similar technology by different initials or in their own favourite shorthand.

With recent advances in this sort of tech we’ll highlight some key ones that may appear under different guises in the manufacturers’ brochures.

Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR):  A forward facing camera detects traffic signs (typically the speed limit) and displays the information to the driver, drawing their attention to it. 

Although most satnav systems can show the speed limit in operation, this information is dependent on an accurate GPS location, and can be flawed or out of date.

Lane Keeping Alert: This visually monitors road markings and alerts the driver with an audio signal or by vibrating the steering wheel if you’re unintentionally ‘drifting’. 

Some systems can be over-sensitive, however, giving too many false alarms and leading the driver to disable the facility.

Adaptive Cruise Control: A radar-enhanced version of conventional cruise control, it’ll reduce the speed of your van if it detects you’re approaching a slower vehicle.

Once you start to pull out to overtake, the more sophisticated systems will immediately commence accelerating back to the set speed. Others wait until the road ahead is totally clear and the obstruction is completely out of detection range.

Trailer Sway Control: Drivers with extensive experience of towing will probably have experienced trailer sway at some point. This is a frightening phenomenon whereby the trailer starts a ‘wagging’ or snaking motion which then causes the towing vehicle to swerve from side to side.

Trailer Sway Control technology detects the onset of this, and automatically reduces the vehicle speed and applies braking.

Roll Stability Control: Detecting conditions where the vehicle may be in danger of rolling, the system instantly applies the electronic stability control facility which controls speed and restores stability.

Autonomous Emergency Braking: A radar system constantly scans for hazards during urban driving – this can include pedestrians unexpectedly stepping out into the road. An audible warning is given and, if this is ignored, the brakes are applied to reduce the severity of the impact or to even avoid it altogether.

Crosswind Assist: Most drivers of vans (particularly high sided ones) will be familiar with the alarming effect a sudden gust of wind can have, especially when driving on motorways. 

Typically, Crosswind Assist technology instantly applies the brakes on just one side of the van to counteract the sideways force, hopefully keeping the van within the lane boundaries.

The future of van tech

We can be assured that even more sophisticated technology is in the pipeline, all designed to make van operation more efficient, reliable, safer, and more comfortable. 

You never know – in the next few years we may even see the first autonomous van on our roads with no need for a driver (although someone will still need to load and unload it!).

I started my career selling vans in the mid-eighties, progressing through dealer groups to management level. In 2010 I joined vehicle valuation company CAP, being made responsible for forecasting future used values for all makes and models of vans and trucks, this data being used by leasing companies and manufacturers to assess future risk. This role entailed very early exposure to new models including extensive testing across Europe.

In 2016 I started up my own consultancy business dedicated to the LCV industry. In addition, my freelance written work has been used by a number of clients and I am a regular contributor to WhatVan? magazine. I’m also a judge for their annual ‘Van of the Year’ awards.

To relax, I enjoy travel, walking near my Yorkshire home and spend much of my time being bullied by my pet cat, Leo.

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