You don't need to be a smartphone-toting member of the Twitterati to know that technology is encroaching into the car cockpit at speeds associated with the Michael and Tony Schumachers of the world. In the same way that only a few years ago you would've never dreamed of (or maybe had nightmares about) old flames finding you on Facebook or being able to track friends' travels on Foursquare, the tech takeover of the car is just getting in gear. Here are five technologies poised to change the way we drive — for good if not for better.
The automobile interior is one of the last bastions of self-imposed isolation in our increasingly connected society. Bluetooth for hands-free calling has barged in on that sanctuary, but it's just the tip of the car tech iceberg. Ford is forging ahead with a "cloud computing" strategy to bring content into the car via a Bluetooth-connected phone using its Sync system. Drivers with the latest version of Sync can get directions, business listings, traffic information, sports scores, stock quotes, movie listings and more by calling out to the cloud.
Connected navigation, as with Google Maps Navigation, downloads fresh mapping software each time you ask for directions and provides continually updated points of interest (POI) information. It sure beats ordering overpriced, outdated maps on disc for an old-school nav system. Moreover, the type of crowd-sourced traffic info that's possible with connected navigation may finally make "real-time" traffic a reality. BMW currently offers a Google Search function for its nav systems, and the 2011 Audi A8 and 2012 A7 feature Google Earth mapping using a 3G modem.
Connected nav also paves the way for location-based services. While a car knowing where you are may seem Orwellian, the convenience of having an e-coupon for $1 off a tank of gas and a free Pepsi pop up when you're low on fuel and about to pass a gas station could override our privacy concerns. And this doesn't even include the kind of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology being tested that could save time, money and lives.
Next-Generation Head-Up Displays
With all the info that connected cars will throw at us, we'll need a way to keep track of it without getting distracted. Head-up displays (HUD) are not new, but the next evolution of the technology promises to provide more features and conveniences.
Light Blue Optics has developed an innovative head-up display using the company's Holographic Laser Projection (HLP) technology to display info such as speed, road warnings and nav info on a windshield at a perceived distance of more than 8 feet in front of the driver. HLP also displays road hazard warnings closer to where they're physically located and adjusts them accordingly as a car closes in. And the technology can be incorporated into rearview and side mirrors to give detailed info on blind spots and stopping distances.
GM, one of the automakers already offering HUDs in its cars, recently unveiled an updated version of the technology that uses the entire windshield. Infrared cameras can "paint" the edges of a road onto the windshield in low-visibility situations, such as heavy fog. GM's next-gen HUD will also include "automated sign-reading technology" to alert you when you exceed a posted speed limit.
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) is a catch-all term for the growing array of technologies that help save people from their own poor driving or judgment and that of others. Most luxury carmakers now offer an alphabet soup of ADAS features — lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, blind-spot detection — and some of the tech is appearing in more modest cars like the Ford Taurus and Toyota Prius.
Expect ADAS features to proliferate and offer even more protection. Volvo's recent ADAS advances include City Safety, which first appeared in the XC60, and Pedestrian Detection, which launched in the S60. The company plans to add recognition of smaller children and animals to similar systems and develop ways to monitor drivers and predict their actions to help avoid accidents. And if multiple interior airbags aren't enough, Mercedes-Benz has shown a prototype Braking Bag that deploys underneath a vehicle to help slow and stabilize it if a crash is inevitable.
Nissan, the first to introduce lane departure prevention, has back-up collision prevention on deck to keep a car from being clipped when blindly backing out of a parking space by automatically applying the brakes when it detects oncoming traffic. The automaker is also developing Motion Object Detection that uses Infiniti's unique Around View Monitor camera system to detect movement around the vehicle and alert the driver to prevent an accident.
Automakers are watching our growing appetite for apps and getting in on the game. Besides positioning an automaker on the cutting edge tech-wise, apps could also allow us to configure cars the way we want.
The obvious advantage to an app you download to your vehicle's dashboard is that you're no longer limited to the features the manufacturer installed in your car on the assembly line. Whether you're a hypermilertrying to wring every mpg possible out of a tank of fuel or an enthusiast methodically measuring 0-60 times, downloadable apps could capture this info at your discretion. The same goes for navigation, communication and entertainment options. And by opening their application programming interface (API) to outside developers, automakers can venture outside their own R&D box to create cool car apps.
Ford has worked with the University of Michigan to develop apps for Sync and opened its API to outside developers. OnStar recently announced a Student Developer Challenge directed at college campuses. Automotive supplier Continental has also showed prototypes for an in-car app store as part of its AutoLinq system.
Telematics and Tracking
With communication technology already embedded in millions of cars, telematics systems are being repositioned to offer more bells and whistles. As part of a major "rebranding," OnStar has unveiled future features that will allow drivers to update their Facebook status and check their news feed using voice activation and text-to-speech technology. Hughes Telematics, which supplies Mercedes-Benz's mbrace telematics system, has shown features that include supplying audible RSS feeds and finding the nearest charging station for electric vehicles. OnStar and mbrace both tie in with smartphone apps so car owners can remotely access features such as door lock/unlock and roadside assistance.
Perhaps the most controversial of the potential new uses for telematics systems is to track vehicles and drivers. While insurance companies contend that such monitoring can save fuel and costly repairs, and offer conveniences such as travel and roadside assistance, the practice smacks of Big Brother and faces an uphill battle among privacy advocates. Regardless, like the other technologies highlighted here, these futuristic telematics features — if not already part of your daily driving — are just down the road.