Automotive Technology: Where It's Been and Where It's Going in 2010 and Beyond

December 31, 2009
For decades, people have been making predictions about what life would be like in the 21st century.  Well, its been here for 10 years now, so what is it really like?  Specifically, what can the cars of the future really do?  They dont hover or travel through time yet, or even drive themselves (well not quite) but the cars of today and tomorrow are giving drivers some pretty high tech options.  Here are a few to look out for in the next few years.

Now: Whats already on the road?

Wireless Communication

Although Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth arent new to most people, none of them are exactly standard new cars.  Thats beginning to change though, with most manufacturers at least offering the option for built-in GPS and Bluetooth capability.  Ford is taking it a step further.  They have partnered with Microsoft to create Sync, which is designed as a link between the vehicle and mobile communication or entertainment devices.  Ford announced this year that it will introduce Wi-Fi capability to some Sync equipped vehicles.  This will allow the vehicle to turn itself into a Wi-Fi hotspot, using existing broadband networks.  Get ready for a new era in road trips and family vacations.

Photo Credit: Ford 

Active Safety Systems

There are no substitutes for common sense and good driving ability, but mistakes do happen, and some manufactures are trying to reduce the risk of crashes caused by human error.  For example, brake assist has been around for a while, but with limited availability.  Now that companies like Mercedes Benz, Volvo, and BMW have proven set the example, I expect the trend to continue to grow.  Some high end vehicles offer active lane departure and driver fatigue warning systems.  These are great features, and have been proven to prevent collisions and injuries in many cases, but I'm concerned that features like these will gradually take too much responsibility away from the driver.

Photo Credit: Mercedes Benz 

Electric Drivetrains and Plug-in Hybrids
Many alternative fuel projects came and went throughout automotive industry in the 20th century, but it wasnt until recently that weve seen real success from these ideas.  Synonymous with environmentalist and tree-hugging propaganda, the Toyota Prius has become quite popular.  Since its introduction, many of the other manufacturers have followed suit with hybrids of their own.  We are now starting to see the introduction of plug-in hybrids and purely electric cars, such as the Chevy Volt, Fisker Karma, and Tesla Roadster.  Expect to see more plug-in hybrids on the road in the next few years, and maybe the introduction of new hybrid technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, and maybe even super capacitors in place of batteries.

Future: Whats coming next?

Autonomous Vehicles

As seen in many student competitions and experiments, the technology to make cars drive themselves is here.  In fact, its been here for a while.  The question is: whats it going to take to make it safe for roads in the real world?  Intellidrive is a system that uses electronics to monitor the surroundings of the vehicle and safely navigate the roads.  Can we rely on computerized cars to get us around safely?  Personally, I think American needs to revitalize its public transportation system and make better use of it.  Regardless of my opinion, dont be surprised if some cars are driving themselves by 2020.

Photo Credit: Intellidrive

Remote control

The introduction of powerful smart phones like Blackberry, iPhone, and Droid has drastically changed the way we communicate with other people and other devices.  Its only a matter of time before technology like this will begin to influence the automotive industry.  Combine the power of wireless communication and vehicle automation and you might be surprised what can be done from a phone.  For example, this group of researchers successfully drove a minivan via a hacked iPhone.  Wow, that would be great for those days when its raining, and you came to work too late to get a good parking spot right?  Just grab the iPhone, start up your can and pull it up to the front door from the comfort of your desk.  Well, not quite.  It just doesnt make sense to introduce this feature to the general public.  You can, however, start your car from a distance, thanks to a special new Viper system with a companion iPhone app called SmartStart.  This is the first of its kind that I know of, and I would expect to see more like it soon.  Its expensive now, but like everything else (except cable TV and cell phone service) it should gradually become more affordable.  I believe we will see more phones with the ability to control and monitor our cars wirelessly.

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