THE CAR OF THE FUTURE IS HERE
Real-time traffic reports. Hands-free parking. "Driving by wire." New models are packed with all kinds of sci-fi-sounding technology. Here's a look at what may be showing up in your next ride.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – IMAGINE: DRIVING A CAR MAY BECOME THE equivalent of writing a letter by hand--poetically nostalgic but not really necessary. Rather than actually drive, as General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz told FORTUNE last summer, "You'll be able to start the car, punch in the appropriate settings, then swivel the seats around and play cards as if you're riding a train."
That Jetsonian scenario may sound wonderful or awful, depending on whether you enjoy steering, braking, and other activities normally associated with automobiles. Either way, the fully automated Car of Tomorrow is much closer to reality than you think. The technology is already here; it's the getting-into-production part that's taking a while.
In fact there's a slew of features on some new models today--you'll get a sampling on the following pages--that would have smacked of science fiction just a few years ago. For example, Honda's Japan-only version of the Accord uses a camera to tell you when you've swerved out of a lane (a system several manufacturers will introduce this year) and helps guide the car back onto the road if you don't do it yourself. The GPS in the 2005 Acura RL gives real-time traffic reports along with driving directions, suggesting alternate routes when the Interstate is jammed. And, starting in late 2005, 18-wheelers will have eye-monitoring systems that count drivers' blinks and monitor pupil movement to detect drowsiness; that feature will start appearing in passenger vehicles in three to five years, according to David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.
Next year's models will come with all kinds of infrared heat detection, gyroscopic yaw sensors, and miniature digital cameras, all of them variously monitoring and adjusting speed and direction. "Growing up with Star Trek, we had the concept of a force field," says Lindsay Brooke, a senior analyst at CSM Worldwide, an automotive research firm. "Vehicles are adding that capability, gaining a certain level of intelligence."
This wave of car technology isn't so much about satisfying drivers' inner Captain Kirks as simply making cars safer. "We're talking about creating cars that don't have accidents," says Dr. Andrew Brown Jr., executive director of engineering at Delphi, which spent $2 billion on research and development last year. "In the last three to four years we've seen an evolution of electronics coming into the vehicle that have enabled us to do things we'd only imagined years ago." A recent innovation that's already paid off hugely is electronic stability control, a computerized response to excessive braking, skidding, and car tilt that keeps a driver from overcompensating and losing control. ESC was introduced in a few high-end makes in 1997 and 1998, and has quickly become ubiquitous on sport-utility and luxury models; last month the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found the system reduces the likelihood of a fatal crash by 34%. Today's lane-departure warnings and blind-spot detectors are also aimed at making driving idiot-proof, as are most of the features depicted here.
But enough about the serious-minded improvements that make driving safer. What about the really out-there stuff? We asked Peter Schwartz, chairman of Global Business Network, a consulting firm that advises FORTUNE 500 companies on the way the future will look. He figures that within a couple of years a service station could deliver coupons to your car just before you drive by. The ad might come in response to a signal from your own gas tank that it's running low. Or maybe you need a tune-up, in which case your car will call ahead and schedule it. As GPS technology gets ever more intertwined with automotive innards, you'll start to see features like headlights that anticipate curves in the road, or an engine that downshifts as it gets to a hill, or cruise control that adapts to new speed zones as you enter a city. You can't get it in cars yet, but farmers can already buy tractors that use GPS to till an entire field without a driver.
To those yearning for the day when we're all flying around in helicars--those are still a ways off. But a hands-free Durango that drives itself while you get some shut-eye? Shouldn't have to wait too long for that.