What’s Next for Car Technology?

By Alexis Caffrey

2014 is looking like a big year for vehicle technology.

Everything, from our cell phones to refrigerators, is getting smarter, so it only makes sense that cars would follow suit. In fact, according to Audi CEO Rupert Stadler, we’re now in the fourth generation of vehicles – and it’s a generation that will use technology to make driving safer, easier and more fun.

Even though we’re only a few weeks in, 2014 has already brought some significant developments to vehicle technology. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest ones.

Embedded connectivity

At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Audi and Chevrolet announced plans to embed 4G telematics in their vehicles this year. Ford is considering doing the same for its Lincoln brand. ExtremeTech.com projects that within five years, all major automakers will have telematics embedded in their cars, for just a few hundred dollars.

Audi has also partnered with AT&T to embed 4G LTE into its products. The system, Audi Connect, will first be available in the 2015 Audi A3 compact, and will provide Facebook and Twitter alerts, news headlines, radio stations and RSS feeds as well as Google Street View and Google Earth maps. The system will also include a Wi-Fi hotspot that can support up to eight devices.

Chevrolet will equip its 2015 models with OnStar 4G LTE, an upgrade to the 3G LTE that’s currently the standard for North American Chevrolets.

Hyundai recently announced an agreement with Verizon for in-car connectivity. The FiOS Internet provider will equip cars with safety, security and diagnostics information as well as entertainment.

In addition to in-car Internet, vehicles will likely soon come with in-car operating systems. Audi, Google, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Nvidia, a chip-maker, have partnered together in the Open Automotive Alliance with the goal of making Android a common in-car OS. These operating systems will help combine multiple applications – including music, directions, weather and local search – into one easy-to-use, driver-centric platform.

So, what do connected cars mean? For one, they’ll be able to provide faster and more accurate information about the world around you. Connected cars are better equipped to find and provide information about directions, weather, traffic and more. And that could mean safer drivers – and more secure cars.  They’ll also be able to provide better entertainment options. In-car Internet brings endless possibilities for audio and video streaming.

How much will in-car connectivity cost drivers? That’s not entirely clear yet. When Audi released cars with 3G connectivity, it cost only $30/month for unlimited data – a steal compared with average cell phone plans.

Eco-friendly cars

One of the strongest and most enduring trends in car technology in recent years? Hybrid and alternate fuel vehicles. As gas prices fluctuate and America becomes more environmentally conscious, demand for more fuel-efficient cars grows.

At the 2014 Washington Auto Show, Toyota introduced a hydrogen-powered system that could be seen in cars as early as 2015. The system converts hydrogen energy to power cars – the only byproduct of which is clean water – into electricity. Many scientists and manufacturers think that this kind of energy is a building block for the future.  

Hybrid engines are growing in the auto market – Cadillac recently won the Green Car Technology prize for its ELR model, which incorporates an electric motor for driving, and a small gas engine for recharging the battery. Diesel engines, also more efficient than regular car engines, continue to make a comeback, especially in the luxury car market.

Cars are getting more eco-friendly in their materials, too. Recycled and composite materials, like carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, are often lighter, making gas mileage better. Researchers have also been exploring bio-based and biodegradable materials for the interiors of vehicles, making cars more eco-friendly and more easily recycled. 

Head-up displays

One downside to so much technology in cars? It increases the risk of distracted driving. When drivers are constantly checking traffic, the weather, directions and more, their attention isn’t always on the road. But head-up displays, or HUDs, are attempting to change that.

Head-up displays take information from your devices – whether it’s your GPS or your smartphone – and project it at eye-level onto the windshield of your car, so you don’t have to look away from the road to find the information you need. Garmin released an HUD last summer – a portable device designed to project maps on to the windshields of users’ cars.

HUD devices can be expensive, though – Garmin’s will run you $149.99. If you’re looking for a cheaper option, an app might work. In November, a Russian startup released an app called Hudway – an HUD for your phone. The app can also keep track of speed, location, upcoming curves in the road and turning distance. The reviews are mixed, but the price can’t be beat – it’s only 99 cents for the ad-free version.

Head-up displays sound cool, but they’re not all that revolutionary – HUD systems have been used in planes since the 1950s. Down the road expect HUD devices to project everything from directions to weather information to local searches.

V2V communication

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication is one new development that’s likely to have a big impact on car safety.

Using V2V communications, nearby vehicles will be able to anonymously exchange information over wireless Internet. That information could include everything from the basic – position, speed and location of vehicles – to more sophisticated data, including nearby hazards or threats, calculated risks and driver advisories or warnings.

How exactly do V2V communications work? They use a simple application called the Here I Am data message. The application uses sensors and technology like GPS to derive external information, which is then combined with internal information from the vehicle’s computer. That can then be combined with information like latitude, longitude and angle to produce an informative picture of the car’s location and path.

Ford debuted a V2V communications system at CES 2014. In the demo, Ford demonstrated several situations, including one car passing another on a freeway, stopping at a toll booth and approaching a red light. The system alerted the vehicle when a car was in its blind spot, and when cars ahead were hitting the brakes.

V2V communications aren’t widespread yet, largely due to bandwidth restrictions. But the U.S. Department of Transportation envisions that one day, every vehicle will be capable of V2V communications, making traveling safer and reducing the risk of injury and fatality. The DOT even projects that V2V systems could prevent 76% of the crashes that occur today.

Self-driving cars

All these technological developments are paving the way toward the one big thing that everyone’s been waiting for – self-driving cars.

Autonomous vehicles have been a hot topic at CES and other major tech and auto shows, and all these new vehicle technologies prove that we’re closer than ever to cars that can drive themselves. BMW and Audi both unveiled driverless car technologies at CES – BMW’s included acceleration and deceleration control, direction, sensors, environmental modeling and decision and driving strategy technologies.

But even though much of the technology is there, self-driving cars may not be a reality for some time. Policy still needs to catch up – autonomous cars are currently only legal in Nevada, and even then a person still has to be present in the driver’s seat at all times. There are also safety issues to work out. For autonomous cars to hit the road, the computer systems behind them will need to be virtually fail-proof.  According to most estimates, autonomous cars are still seven to ten years away.

But, one question remains – are these shiny new car technologies really resonating with drivers? That depends on who you ask. According to the New York Times, younger drivers are still more motivated by price and fuel economy than smart technology.

But, like any new technology, it will likely only be a matter of time before in-car Internet, head-up displays – and yes, even self-driving cars – are the norm.

Published Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Written by Alexis Caffrey

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