Enough with complaining that the exciting automotive future promised by your favorite childhood shows and movies never materialized. They weren’t fantasies. They were just very ahead of their time. Every tech improvement in the car industry has been leading us to that exciting future. The irritating beeping of an overly sensitive lane departure warning system in a family sedan leads us along a chain all the way to a vast future network of driverless electric pods at your beck and call. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Give innovators 10 years (give or take), and they will revolutionize the way you drive.
1. Autonomous Cars
You’ve heard of this one already. This is the car that drives itself, thanks to cameras, sensors, radar, lasers and magic. The most well-known autonomous car program is Google’s, which has been around (and succeeding) for years now, but most automakers also are working with technology that will make autonomous cars a reality in the next decade. Nissan is promising such a car in even less time: by 2020. Some of the “active safety” technologies that act strictly as driver assistance in production cars today are evolving into the systems that will allow the vehicle to take complete control of the driving process in the near future. These include adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance, lane-centering and parking assist.
In fact, the presence of these active safety features in production cars is a crucial step toward convincing the driving public that self-driving cars are OK; they are the seeds planted in the minds of car owners that will eventually grow into an attitude of acceptance of autonomous cars. At publication time, three states (Nevada, Florida and California) had enacted legislation to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on their roads for testing purposes — another important step.
Those of us who actually enjoy driving might be thinking, “Hold up. Why would I ever give up the wheel to a computer program?” One answer is that, in theory, a fleet of autonomous cars will seriously reduce traffic, vehicle accidents and fatalities. That’s hard to argue against. The other answer is that self-driving cars will be truly excellent for the daily commute. Get some work done while your car drives you to work. Read. Call your mother. You can save your non-autonomous car for weekend canyon-carving at the Asphalt Aspen driving resorts that will surely be developed for that purpose.
2. EV Extravaganza: Cheaper High-Range Electric Cars Abetted by Nationwide Quick-Charge Networks
There are two why-I-wouldn’t-buy-an-EV explanations that people pull out of their back pockets when pressed: “They’re too expensive” and “How will I take a road trip?”
Let’s tackle that first one. Yes, electric cars are currently more expensive to purchase than their gas-only or even hybrid counterparts. A lot of that extra cost has to do with the cost of batteries, specifically the lithium-ion batteries that are often used in EVs (and cell phones, too). Until the cost of those Li-ion batteries drops, EV prices will remain high.
Luckily, researchers are working on ways to improve Li-ion batteries, and experts agree that battery cost will drop in the coming years. One possibility for cost reduction is the further development of lithium-polymer batteries, which could potentially be lighter, more adaptable, more rugged and cheaper to produce.
At the University of Wollongong in Australia, professors of nano-material engineering have had a breakthrough. They used a material based on germanium, an element abundantly found in the earth’s crust, to increase the energy storage capabilities of Li-ion batteries by five times their usual capacity. And though the price of germanium will need to go down a bit to make these improvements more affordable, the point is that we have options for improvement.
So: Improved storage will reduce price and increase range. Bring on the road trip. We just need somewhere to charge along the way. Enter the automakers to build the filling stations of the future.
Nissan, maker of the popular Leaf EV, has announced a partnership with quick-charge provider CarCharging to add 48 chargers in California and select spots on the East Coast. Dozens more quick-chargers have been installed in select states under a pair of federal-private programs operated by ChargePoint and Ecotality. And as any Tesla Model S owner worth his HOV lane sticker will tell you, Elon Musk has already built 21 high-speed electric charging stations (nine in California; three in Connecticut; two in Florida, Texas and Washington state; and one each in Delaware, Illinois, and Oregon as of this writing), with many, many more planned. Tesla is also adding a battery pack swap service at these charging stations for customers who are in a real rush.
Right now, Tesla’s stations are only open to Tesla drivers (charging is free; the battery swap is not). But as manufacturers watch Tesla’s and Nissan’s charging-station development plans, chances are good that more will jump on the bandwagon. That means it’s not crazy to expect that you’ll be able to drive an EV cross-country to Grandma’s house in a reasonable amount of time before you’re very much older.
3. Next-Gen Active Safety Features
Imagine road warnings, turn-by-turn navigation arrows indicating your next turn or street names appearing virtually in the distance. Think about separate displays for the driver and the passenger, allowing the passenger to input destinations into the navigation system or watch videos without risk of distracting the driver.
Someday you might even be able to drive safely in heavy fog with a head-up display that is integrated with adaptive cruise control and in-car cameras. Through an augmented reality display on the windshield (much like a video game version of the actual world around you), the system re-creates what the fog hides and enhances your ability to see lane markings, cars and the sides of the road in low-visibility driving conditions.
Speaking of outside forces that can challenge a driver’s abilities, let’s talk about distractions, and how we’ll dispense with them in the future. Phone calls, crowded roadways, bad weather and more can conspire to distract a driver from the most important task at hand: driving safely. Automakers are working on integrating biometric sensing systems into their cars to help manage the stress the driver feels. Here’s how Ford’s version, the Driver Workload Estimator, works.
Sensors embedded in the driver’s contact points with the car (seat, steering wheel and seatbelt) collect, measure and analyze heart rate, breathing and perspiration. They combine that data with information collected from the car’s surroundings, plus driver input via the gas pedal, brake pedal and steering. The system then manages how much infotainment and communication the driver experiences, depending on the overall workload he’s handling. An example: In heavy, erratic traffic on a hot day, sensing the driver’s rising heart rate and quick breathing, as well as rapid switching from gas to brake pedal and back, the car engages the “Do Not Disturb” signal in its telemetry system, delaying phone calls, quieting the audio system and eliminating other distractions until it is safe to reintroduce them.
Finally, something that we may see as early as 2014 from Cadillac is hands-off adaptive cruise control, which keeps the car in the center of the lane and a safe distance from the car in front of it (Cadillac calls its version “Super Cruise”). Using data from cameras, radar and ultrasonic systems, the system responds more rapidly to traffic fluctuations than a human operator can and keeps the vehicle in its lane without any input from the driver.
4. Car-to-Car and Car-to-Object Communication
It won’t let you tell off the driver in the sport coupe who just cut you off, but car-to-car communication is definitely something in your automotive future. Using in-car sensors and transmitters built into roadside devices, connected cars are able to send and receive speed and location data to and from each other using dedicated short-range communication (similar to Wi-Fi). The goal of the system is to improve the flow of traffic, avoid collisions (or at least reduce their severity) and alert drivers to upcoming traffic situations so they can take any necessary action. All this would be accomplished through near-field communication using sensors and transmitters stationed on the road.
In 2012, the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, partnering with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, began a year-long test of 2,800 “intelligent cars” in Ann Arbor. It is the largest undertaking of its kind in North America. In addition to transmitting safety-related data, connected vehicles can let a driver know if a stoplight will be changing soon and in the right, safe circumstances, change red lights to green. One bonus feature of all this data collection: hyper-accurate real-time traffic reporting, thanks to the technology already in the car.
5. Networked Cars
For millions of people living in large, crowded urban areas, the networked car could be just the revolution they need. Part electric taxi-for-hire, part highly personalized public transportation, networked cars are autonomous electric pods that can talk to each other. A good example is GM’s EN-V (electric networked vehicle) concept. The EN-V is a two-seat driverless electric vehicle that shares speed, location and availability information with all the other cars in its network via wireless communication.
If you need to get somewhere, you “call” for a networked car via a smartphone app or computer. An electric pod shows up at your location, you get inside and punch in where you need to go. The pod calculates the best route, thanks to the real-time traffic info it accesses via its network, and starts off. It can recalculate as necessary. The pod drops you off at your destination and leaves to take another passenger somewhere or goes to a nearby recharging station to juice up, if necessary. Science fiction, you say? General Motors plans to run significant tests of the second generation of the EN-V in multiple large cities around the world by 2020. Experts point out the independence that networked cars like these can give to segments of the population who currently cannot drive, like the elderly, mobility-challenged and the very young.
6. Flying Cars
The darn thing’s got wings. Or possibly rotors. Sure, the idea of a flying car is nothing new. The first attempt at a car that could fly was way back in 1917. It was called the Curtiss Autoplane, and it hopped. It didn’t take long before the entertainment industry got in on the act. From the Jetsons’ car and the Weasley family’s flying Ford Anglia to the Spinners of the movie Blade Runner and everyone’s favorite DeLorean piloted by Doc Brown in Back to the Future, TV and movies have long been filled with our flying-car fantasies.
But what about a viable production flying car? Well, there are many modern companies working on a car that can take to the skies from the driveways of the masses. One of them is Massachusetts-based Terrafugia. The company’s drivable plane, called the Transition, made its first public flight demonstrations in July 2013 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Up next on Terrafugia’s to-do list is the TF-X. This one is part helicopter, part plug-in hybrid car, part autonomous street-legal car. With the TF-X, you input your destination as you would with a nav system and take off vertically from your driveway. The computer takes care of the rest, including all the flying and the landing. Terrafugia says its production version of the TF-X is 8-12 years away. Realistically, the initial applications of this type of vehicle will be limited to emergency services vehicles, law enforcement and ultra-rich people. But that’s what they used to say about iPhones, and look where we are now.