The buzzword in the auto industry today is "smart." Automakers are busily developing technology destined to change the way we drive and park, making driving easier and safer. Slowly, the advances are becoming more affordable, too, and no longer the exclusive province of the ultra-rich.
Here's a look at auto technologies that will be available to car owners in the not-too-distant future.
Paralyzed by Parallel Parking?
Still can't parallel park? Self-parking systems included in select Mercedes, Lexus, Toyota, and Ford models may be your vehicular salvation. It’s as easy as pulling up to the parking spot, telling the car the location of the open space and letting the vehicle do the rest. Most systems rely on the car's onboard computer in combination with a rear-mounted camera and a servomechanism that can react if the car gets too close to the curb or encounters other problems. The system takes some to set up, and it may prolong your parking time. And here's another complication: If your car parks itself during your driving test, who does the DMV issue the license to?
Image credit: Daimler AG
Rear-End Collision Avoidance System
Companies such as Volvo and Mercedes are working on crash avoidance systems. Radar measures the distance to obstacles ahead of the car, and if one comes too close the system will warn the driver. If the driver fails to act in sufficient time to stop the car safely, the cars computer takes over and applies the brakes. For Volvo, the technology developed so far hasn’t always worked perfectly: this video from a press event last year shows what happens when things go wrong. Long-term, though, crash avoidance systems should make for some very intriguing demolition derbies.
Image credit: Volvo
OnStar has been around for nearly ten years. Initially its availability was limited to GM cars, but that state of affairs will change this summer with the release of the OnStar Mirror at Best Buy. The OnStar Mirror ($299) replaces your car's rear-view mirror. You won't get all of the service's fancy diagnostic features or its remote unlock, but the OnStar Mirror will include Bluetooth functionality, access to the OnStar customer service network, and automated crash response. To provide these benefits, the mirror requires that you purchase an OnStar service contract, which runs $199 per year.
Image credit: OnStar/General Motors
Driver-Side Doctor Diagnostics
Asthmatic or allergy prone? Diabetic? Have heart issues? Ford is working on technologies that will build health monitoring capabilities into its cars. The vehicle would be able to display pollen counts through its Sync system when tethering to a smart phone, or to display glucose levels from a Bluetooth-enabled monitoring device. The car maker is also working on technologies that build heart sensors into the driver's seat, which could give the driver early warning of heart problems.
Image credit: Ford Motor Company
Google Is Your Back Seat Driver
Google is applying its search algorithms to the automobile with Google Prediction API. Google hopes to collect and process information about how drivers use their vehicles in order to automatically change how the vehicle performs. The goal is to make the car to be more energy efficient. In one example, a hybrid car could favor its gasoline engine on the first part of a trip to build up (and reserve) battery power for an electric-power-only section of road that comes up later in the route.
Image credit: Google
One major problem with the electric car at its present stage of development is that the vehicle's batteries in the vehicle can hold only so much charge before needing to be plugged back in, and the car can charge the batteries only so much on the gas motor itself while in use. Volvo hopes to overcome that limitation by developing and embedding an inductive charging system in the road surface itself. The concept works in much the same way that the inductive chargers from Energizer and others do, with electrical power being transferred from an inductive plate on the bottom of the car. Volvo warns motorists not to expect this breakthrough anytime soon though: As yet there is no standard for the technology.
Image credit: Volvo
As if inspired by The Jetsons, Google is attempting to design a car that can drive itself. The company's fleet of automated cars has logged more than 140,000 miles already, and apparently has achieved some success. It's unclear though how far along the technology is, as the company remains pretty tight-lipped about the project.
Image credit: The New York Times
Auto-Tint for Privacy
In collaboration with Hitachi, Mercedes has developed a technology that allows owners of its 2011 SLK coupe to tint the car's panoramic glass roof as needed. The company builds a film into the glass that can adjust its tint level across a range from just opaque (99.5 percent of light blocked) to almost perfectly clear--all at the touch of a button.
Image credit: Daimler AG
Keyless Car Entry
Keyless ignition is popping up all over the place. The concept is simple; a key fob that the user keeps handy enables the user to start the car by pushing a button. Similar key fobs will work for keyless entry: As you approach your vehicle, with you key fob in your pocket, the car will automatically unlock for you. In 2011, nearly every major automaker has produced a model that has such a system--and it's likely to become more commonplace as time goes on.
Image credit: via AriannaOrland.com
Chevy Volt to Jolt Auto Industry?
Hybrid cars have become all the rage, but only recently have completely electricity-powered cars--like the Chevy Volt pictured here-- become possible. Quite pricey at over $40,000, the car currently can only go 35 miles on its own electricity. But it's a start, and in a pinch you can drive another 375 miles with the assistance of the car's gasoline-powered engine. Chevrolet says that the car can attain speeds of 100 miles per hour with electric power, versus the maximum of 35 mph for hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Meanwhile, Toyota is working on a plug-in version of its own.
Image credit: Chevrolet/General Motors
Get Your Ford in Sync
Systems like Microsoft's Sync in Ford vehicles are what make smart cars "smart": In these vehicles, a computer controls all of the automobile's functions. The Sync system provides Bluetooth functionality for phones and media players, along with navigation, car diagnostics, personalized "infotainment," and traffic data. Other systems have gone so far as to allow drivers to control functions via voice commands. It's like something right out of Star Trek!
Image credit: Microsoft/Ford Motor Company