In the early 1980s television series Knight Rider, David Hasselhoff co-starred with a black Pontiac Trans Am named K.I.T.T. (that's the Knight Industries Two Thousand, if you're old enough to remember). The latter could talk, drive by itself and get its human partner out of a jam using its onboard artificial intelligence. At the time, such capabilities seemed like sheer fantasy -- even laughable. Yet today, these once "futuristic" car capabilities (and many more) are reality -- or close to it, anyway.
In this article, we'll explore five of the biggest upcoming technologies to watch for on the automotive scene, and when you might be able to experience them from behind the steering wheel.
In some cases, the technology is already here and ready to use. With others, you shouldn't expect to see them hit the roads until further research has worked out the flaws -- not to mention the high costs. But if past experience has shown us anything, it's that the race to provide cars that are safer, more efficient, faster and just plain cooler will keep pushing the boundaries of technology in what we drive.
Clearly, the need to make our cars and trucks run cleaner is driving innovation.
Today, several technologies compete to replace our current dependence on fossil fuels, which are environmentally unfriendly and will eventually run out. Renewable fuels including biodiesel and ethanol have made significant inroads on the premise that we can always grow more. But these fuels are also controversial. A strong debate is brewing about the science and ethics of using crops to make fuel rather than food. (Soybeans provide the raw material for biodiesel while corn is used to produce ethanol.)
You've no doubt at least heard of hybrid cars, that is, if you don't already drive one yourself. Hybrids combine a traditional internal combustion engine with an electric motor to deliver increased fuel efficiency. Expect hybrids to be around for some time, even when all-electric cars such as the Tesla Roadster have come to dominate the roads. Since many of today's cars last much longer than those of a decade or two ago, they'll likely continue to require the support of the gasoline filling station infrastructure.
Currently, all-electric cars are the "Holy Grail" of clean transportation. They produce zero direct emissions and automakers have made wall-socket recharging capability a must on the vehicles they plan to release to the public. What's even more enticing about electric cars is the potential to make them completely non-polluting by recharging them with emissions-free solar or wind energy. Currently, coal-burning power plants make up the vast majority of electricity-producing facilities in the United States.
Collision Avoidance Systems
Besides pollution and contribution to climate change, cars and trucks have one other significant drawback: they can injure or kill people in an accident.
Still, more than 37,000 people in the United States alone died in 2008 as a result of auto accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Fatality Analysis Reporting System [source: Fatality Analysis Reporting System].
But what if collisions themselves became a thing of the past?
Several companies are working on it. Volvo, the Swedish car company that equates its brand with safety, appears to have been among the first out of the gate toward that goal, making a low-speed crash avoidance system available with its XC60 crossover SUV. Dubbed "City Safety," Volvo's detection system uses "LIDAR" -- a cross between laser and radar -- to prevent fender benders below 9 miles per hour (14.5 kilometers per hour). It can significantly reduce the force of a crash up to 18 miles per hour (29 kilometers per hour), and Volvo says that below the 18 miles per hour (29 kilometers per hour) mark is where 75 percent of all accidents happen anyway [source: Ulrich].
So-called adaptive cruise control systems use laser or radar to maintain a set distance from other vehicles on the highway. Available today on more upscale brands including Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes, it's just a matter of time before this technology migrates to within reach of drivers with smaller budgets [source: Carley].
Weight plays a big role in both crashes and fuel efficiency. To find out how automakers are putting their cars on a high-fiber diet to make them lose weight, head over to the next page.
High-strength, Low-weight Materials
In order to get even greater mileage and lower emissions than we're capable of today, cars will have to become lighter in weight. But with consumers demanding more creature comforts inside their vehicles, it would be a bad business move to stop offering the latest technical wizardry and sound-deadening material that make for a comfy ride. Yet, these concessions to comfort make cars heavier.
One solution is to make body components of lighter materials like carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (or polymer), which you might see abbreviated as CFRP or just CRP. Like many automotive innovations, this one started out in the racing world long before seeing wide application in the consumer marketplace.
CFRP works much like fiberglass -- the carbon fiber is spun into long strands and then arranged in a cloth-like weave for strength. A gooey plastic material (the polymer) is soaked into the carbon fiber around a shaped mold. When the combination hardens, the resulting part is strong and quite light -- perhaps 50 percent lighter than forming the part out of metal alloy. It's very expensive, and therefore still uncommon on mass-produced cars [source: Madabout-Kitcars.com].
However, the Z06 version of the Chevrolet Corvette already makes limited use of carbon fiber right from the factory. And Lexus is using CFRP extensively throughout its 2011-release supercar, the LF-A, and says on the LF-A Web site to expect more carbon fiber cars from Lexus in the future [source: Lexus]. BMW has used carbon fiber for the roof on it M3 sports car, and plans to use it on a wide scale for its "Megacity" eco-friendly city car expected sometime around 2015.
Cars won't just be getting lighter in the future, but smarter as well. Go to the next page to learn how.
More "Smart" Technologies
To deal with a world that's getting ever more crowded and complex, our cars are becoming smarter. Or to be more precise, they're getting more computers and more software so that they can do more stuff.
But how about a car that was able to sense when you were too tired (or perhaps too tipsy) to drive? And what if it instructed you to perk up or perhaps chided you in the case of excessive drinking? Systems that observe your eyes and face for signs of alertness have been studied by IBM, Nissan and others.
Those systems are still too expensive and complicated to put in everyday cars, but the base for them is already here. Volvo, for instance, uses available lane departure sensing technology to detect when sleepy drivers make jerky, telltale steering wheel corrections. The system then "audibly suggests" the driver pull over and take a rest [source: Quain].
All-electric "smart" cars are expected to form an important piece of the electrical "smart grid" that's under development. They will be able to communicate with the power grid and figure out when the best time is to recharge -- typically at night when there's less demand on the power system.
You could program your car to only recharge when electricity is cheapest to buy, or only when it's being produced from renewable resources. Your car would then communicate with the grid wirelessly to accept juice to its batteries only during the conditions you specified [source: Ford Motor Company].
Don't expect car smarts to stop at just re-charging, either. The phrase "leave the driving to us" could take on new meaning with the cars of the not-so-distant future. Read the next page to see why.
In the television commercials at least, part of the fun of owning a car is the driving itself. Twisting and turning around country roads looks like a fun way to get from point A to point B. But for anyone who lives in or near a city -- most of the population -- the reality is usually quite different. The commercials never show the star vehicle stuck in gridlock, or the predictably unfortunate consequences of distracted driving (reading, texting, talking on the phone, applying makeup behind the wheel and so on).
In today's time-starved society, driving has become something we put up with between doing other things. So, what if our cars could drive themselves? Imagine that you got in, named your destination and your trusty, artificially intelligent transport whisked you there safely, efficiently and quickly. On the way there you could take a nap, read a book (displayed on a screen in the car, of course) or enjoy a meal using both hands.
It's not that far-fetched.
DARPA, the experimental projects branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, gave away millions in prize money for teams to develop an "autonomous ground vehicle." In other words, a vehicle that could drive itself. The 2007 contest, called the DARPA Urban Challenge, proved that a vehicle could use available sensors, GPS, and computer controls to successfully navigate roads with traffic and other obstacles, minus a human driver [source: DARPA].
Those vehicles weren't nearly as glamorous or fast as the Knight Industries Two Thousand. But like the tentative initial hops of the Wright Brothers' first airplane, they could portend changes in tomorrow's transportation that today we can barely even imagine.
For more information about important upcoming car technologies and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at how scientists are using new technology, along with GPS and LIDAR, to map country roads so self-driving cars can use them too.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Carley, Larry. "Active Safety Technology: Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning & Collision Mitigation Braking." ImportCar.com. June 16, 2009. (Nov. 19, 2009) http://www.import-car.com/Article/58867/active_safety_technology_adaptive_cruise_control_lane_ departure_warning__collision_mitigation_braking.aspx
- Carlson, Satch. "Carbon Fiber: Coming to BMW's Next City Car." BMW Car Club of America. Oct. 31, 2009. (Nov. 22, 2009) http://bmwcca.org/forum/printthread.php?t=6211
- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "DARPA Urban Challenge." (Nov. 25, 2009) http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/index.asp
- Fatality Analysis Reporting System. (Nov. 19, 2009) http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx
- Ford Motor Company. "Ford Unveils 'Intelligent' System for Plug-in Hybrids to Communicate with the Electric Grid." (Feb 2, 2010)http://www.ford.com/about-ford/news-announcements/press-releases/press-releases-detail/pr-ford-unveils-intelligent-system-30849
- Lexus. "LF-A -- Genesis of a Supercar." (Nov. 19, 2009)http://www.lexus.co.uk/range/lfa/features.aspx
- Madabout-Kitcars.com. "Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic." (Nov. 20, 2009) http://www.madabout-kitcars.com/kitcar/kb.php?aid=257
- Quain, John R. "Volvo Bumps Up Its Safety Systems." The New York Times. March 20, 2008. (Nov. 20, 2009)http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/20/volvo-bumps-up-its-safety-systems/
- Ulrich, Lawrence. "Testing Volvo's Collision Avoidance System." The New York Times. April 9, 2009. (Nov. 20, 2009)http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/09/testing-volvos-collision-avoidance-system/
- Volvocars.com. "VolvoCars receives Paul Pietsch Award 2009 for City Safety." Jan. 29, 2009. (Feb. 2, 2010)http://www.volvocars.com/intl/top/about/news-events/pages/default.aspx?itemid=28