The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class has cameras that can read road signs and sensors to judge distance to the car in front, but is not yet able to make full use of the hardware.
What may sound like a shortcoming is in fact a deliberate strategy by manufacturer Daimler, and a sign of things to come for the global luxury car industry.
Owners of the upscale Mercedes compact will be able to add new functions such as predictive cruise control -- which lets the car drive itself in some situations -- by updating the car's operating system when the technology becomes available.
Taking their cue from gadget makers such as Apple, Daimler and rivals are developing cars to receive software updates that include new tools or even improve fuel efficiency, much in the way an iPad gets new capabilities with each successive operating system.
That is a big change -- and a potential saving -- for an industry used to spending heavily to revamp aging models.
"We are entering a new era," Mercedes-Benz development chief Thomas Weber said. "Until now, cars retained the properties they had on the day they were purchased."
Daimler's push shows software is emerging as a new battleground among carmakers seeking to use technology to make cars safer, more entertaining, and better at solving problems such as locating a parking space or the nearest hospital.
While the aircraft industry has long relied on computers to fly planes, cars have been held back by insufficient broadband telecoms infrastructure, the price of computing power and regulatory limits to automation.
But software is now set to become as important to carmakers as traditional engineering, according to Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with IT and research group Gartner Inc.
"What we are witnessing is a change that will impact the industry for decades to come," said Koslowski, who used to work at Audi. "The next venue of competitive differentiation will come from software."