Technology is supposed to make life simpler and better. Cars cover greater distances than horses. The automatic transmission spares us the task of shifting gears. Cruise control gives feet a rest on long road trips.
Here are six new car technologies that continue in that tradition. They might not be offered on all vehicles, and some will take time to make their way to the mainstream car market. But at the very least, this list can serve as a glimpse into the future of some cool, make-it-simple car technologies.
1. Piloted Parking
Mall parking lots are a hassle on the weekends and a nightmare around the holidays. But what if you didn't have to worry about driving around to find a space, or even parking the car at all? Enter Audi's piloted parking.
Here's how it works. You drive your Audi to a specially designated car lot, leave the car at a drop-off area, choose an open space with a smartphone app and then let the car do all the work.
From there, the vehicle uses its Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) cameras to navigate the lot and park itself in the pre-determined space. Once you're finished shopping, you enter a command in the smartphone app, asking for the car to meet you at the drop-off area. This video shows the system in action.
Piloted parking needs two major components to work: a self-driving car and a parking lot outfitted with laser sensors to record the car's movement. Businesses may be more likely to add the sensors to their parking lots once self-driving cars are on the road in sizable numbers.
In the meantime, Ford and Toyota already have vehicles that can assist with parking. In these cars, the driver has to be in the vehicle to manipulate the gas and brake pedals. The car will automatically take care of steering into the space.
We put these two self-parking systems to the test, and found that while they work well enough, they often require a large parking space to operate in.
2. In-Car WiFi Hotspots
People are used to being online all the time, whether at home or at work. The rare exception is when we get into our cars. Sure, you can pull out a smartphone to check your e-mail or Facebook, but what if you want to get some work done on your laptop or browse the Web on a larger tablet? The 2013 Ram 1500 with Uconnect access has a solution that is catching on with other automakers.
Uconnect Access is a $505 upgrade (more if you want navigation) to the Ram 1500's infotainment system. The package adds a 3G cellular modem, running on the Sprint network, which provides a WiFi hotspot for multiple devices up to 150 feet away.
Chrysler has confirmed that Uconnect Access will be available on the high-performance 2013 SRT Viper and the more affordable 2014 Jeep Cherokee. Data prices range from $9.99 a day to $34.99 per month.
The 2013 Audi A6, A7 and A8 also offer 3G WiFi hotspots, albeit at a much higher cost for the car. Data prices for Audi connect range from $15 per month on a 30-month contract, to $30 per month without a contract. And by 2015, General Motors plans to equip most of its models with a 4G LTE modem that will also provide even faster WiFi hotspots.
3. Airless Tires
It's a fact: Most people don't check their tire inflation often enough, and a lot of us are driving on underinflated tires, which is hard on fuel economy and can be unsafe. Swings in temperature also can affect tire pressure. Furthermore, under-inflation and over-inflation can cause premature wear on a tire. One solution? Dump the air.
The Bridgestone Corporation announced in late 2011 that it is working on a concept airless or "non-pneumatic" tire. Instead of air, this tire would be filled with molded thermoplastic resin spokes, which would be strong enough to support the weight of the vehicle. Since the tire does not need air, it would still operate normally if it were punctured. The thermoplastic material, including the rubber on the tread of the tire, would be 100 percent recyclable, making the concept tire significantly more environmentally friendly.
Bridgestone says that it has no set date for the launch of these tires. But even if they don't make it to passenger vehicles, there is still potential use for them on off-road and military vehicles.
4. Easy-Fill Tire Alert
While we may be a ways off from the "airless tire," Nissan has come up with a technology to make it easier to maintain the tires that actually do need air. The Easy-Fill Tire Alert system is a convenient alternative to the inaccurate, or sometimes nonexistent, tire pressure gauges at gas stations.
When you connect an air hose to the tire and the air starts flowing, the vehicle's emergency lights flash to indicate that the filling process has started. The horn chirps when the tire pressure reaches the recommended setting. If the driver spaces out and keeps filling the tire with air, the car horn honks until the air hose is disconnected. Once the driver has let air out of an overfilled tire, the horn chirps again to signal that the proper tire pressure has been reached.
The Easy-Fill Tire Alert debuted on the 2013 Nissan Altima sedan and will eventually make its way to other Nissan vehicles, the automaker says.
5. Smart Headlights
Driving in the rain or snow at night is difficult not only because of the road conditions, but also because car headlights illuminate raindrops and snowflakes rather than the road. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed a headlight system that combines a camera, projector, beam splitter and an Intel-based processor to reduce the number of raindrops in your field of view.
The camera detects the raindrops at the top of the field of view. The processor determines their future location. The projector reacts to "dis-illuminate" the particles. The entire process takes about 13 milliseconds, and could potentially speed up once the system has been fully integrated into a car.
"A few manufacturers have contacted us about the headlights," says Srinivas Narasimhan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and principal investigator for the project. He says nothing formal has been agreed to since the lights are still in the development period.
Narasimhan says that his team has continued to make improvements to the technology, but adds that researchers need another two years to make the headlights fast enough to be used effectively at highway speeds and small enough to fit in most vehicles. Once they clear that hurdle, he estimates that we should see them on cars in four to five years.
For now, we have smart headlights on cars like the Dodge Dart, though they aren't as smart as the ones that have their degree from Carnegie Mellon. If you are driving with your high beams on at night, Chrysler's "SmartBeam" headlamps sense the headlamps or taillamps of other cars and adjust the high beams to avoid blinding oncoming traffic.
6. Hydrophobic Windows
Rather than relying on the headlights to hide raindrops, what if the drops just beaded up and slid right off the car's windows? The 2014 Kia Cadenza is one of the first vehicles to offer hydrophobic windows.
The Cadenza's side windows have been specially treated to repel water and condensation. This improves visibility in rainy weather and makes for easier drying after the car is washed. Kia bundles hydrophobic windows into the Cadenza's Technology package, which also includes adaptive cruise control and blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems.
As of this writing, we know of no other automakers that are offering hydrophobic windows. But there is a way to have the windows' benefits without having to buy a Cadenza: Consider getting a bottle of rain repellent. It works great, and you can use it on all your car windows.
We never said that life-simplifying car technology had to be expensive.
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