Future cars

Like many other small boys, I was fascinated by cars, not least because my oldest brother was a bit of a car guy and subscribed to cool magazines like Car and Driver and Motor Trend. Every so often, one of those magazine (or other cool magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics) would run an article on the “Car of the Future.” They featured way-out styling and things like (I swear I saw this more than once) small nuclear reactors as power sources. Yet, frankly, my car doesn’t do anything that my brother’s Studebaker didn’t do. It goes, it stops, it burns gasoline, it plays music (albeit it via a CD player rather than an AM radio). I still have to steer it, and it still runs into things if I don’t steer it carefully or if meteorological conditions conspire against me (as happened to many of us on April 1!).

But guess what? All of these things that my car has in common with mid-’50s Studebakers are subject to change in the not-so-distant future. It will still go and stop, but it may not burn gasoline, I may not have to steer it, and it may be a lot better at not running into things.

Herewith are a few technological tricks the cars of the future–very near future in some cases, much farther future in others–may have going for them, broken down by category, beginning with safety.

Airbags aren’t the be-all and end-all in safety. In fact, considering the recent news about people occasionally being killed by their airbags in low-speed collisions, they obviously still need some development. But they aren’t going away, and in fact, you can expect to see cars appearing with additional, side-impact airbags, something some European car manufacturers already offer.

Better than systems to minimize injury in the event of an accident, however, are systems that minimize the likelihood of an accident happening in the first place. Cars in the early 21st century may be able to eliminate many of the major causes of accidents, including drunk-driving, tailgating and drowsiness. Cars could be equipped with sensors that can detect alcohol in a driver’s system and prevent the car from being started, for example. Many accidents are caused by people following the car in front too closely. As early as next year, you’ll be able to buy cars with radar-equipped cruise control systems. If the radar determines you’re closing too quickly with the car in front, it will ease up on the throttle. If the vehicle ahead accelerates, it will return your car to its preset speed. For city streets, expect other radar devices within just a few years that will give advance warning that the car in front of you has slowed abruptly and you should step on the brakes–or that may even brake for you.

Ever merged into a lane only to discover that there was another car hidden in your blind spot? You’ll also be able to get cars with radar systems that warn you if there is a car to your side or rear whenever you activate your turn signal for a lane change. (Of course, this won’t do a thing for the nincompoops that never signal when changing lanes, but no technology is perfect.)

Many accidents at night happen because the driver just can’t see very well. Older driver, in particular, sometimes have less-acute night vision. GM has a device that uses infrared technology; it sense variations in temperature between the road and people, animals and objects on it or beside it. It’s already being tested on police cars and could be available in five to 10 years. Ford, meanwhile, has a “vision enhancement” system that uses radar to locate objects obscured by rain, snow or fog and project symbols outlining those objects onto the windshield. This one is a long way from being ready for consumer use, though; fighter pilots, who use similar “heads-up” displays, have to undergo a lot of training before they can make effective use of them.

I’ve been guilty of driving when I was too sleepy, and have had the scary experience of dozing off just long enough to find myself drifting toward the ditch or, worse, the wrong side of the road. Future cars may be equipped with a sensor that monitors the driver’s body temperature. If it dropped–which would indicate drowsiness–the sensor would set off an alarm or flashing signal. Nissan has developed a different sort of system that uses a small video camera mounted in the instrument panel to analyze a driver’s face; as eye blinks become longer and more freqent, a sure sign of drowsiness, the system beeps and delivers a “refreshing lemon-menthol scent.”

Another safety-enhancing possibility could be a “smart key” which would contain information about your usual driving practices. If you deviated from them–started cornering too fast or driving erratically–it would sound a warning. Similar “smart keys” could limit the capabilities of a vehicle when a young or inexperienced driver was at the wheel.

Navigation is another area where we can expect to see exciting technological development. You can already buy cars equipped with systems that make use of the network of Global Positioning Satellites orbiting the earth to pinpoint your location on an electronic map and tell you how to get where you want to go. Eventually, GPS-based navigation systems will also be able to warn you of traffic jams and accidents and recommend alternate routes. As well, should you break down, you’ll be able to telephone for help (all cars will have built-in cellular phones, of course) and emergency vehicles will be able to find you no matter how remote your location.

If all this makes your car sound very smart, that’s the idea; and increasingly, your computer-laden “smart car” will interact with sensor-packed “smart highways,” which will monitor traffic flows and, using electronic signs and, eventually, direct communication with the computer “brain” in your car, guide and route traffic to eliminate, or at least mitigate, traffic jams.

Will cars eventually be able to drive themselves? There’s no reason to think it won’t be technically possible, and Mercedes is working on just such an “autopilot”–a system that can brake, accelerate and steer a vehicle down a highway on its own, using stereo images from two video cameras which scan road markings 12 times a second and constantly check the sides and rear for potential obstacles. Nobody really expects people to give up all control to their cars, but such systems could be used as failsafe systems to keep cars on the road and bring them safely to a stop even if the driver suddenly became incapacitated.

What will provide power for these smart cars of the future? Well, it won’t be nuclear reactors. The fact is, for the foreseeable future, gasoline will continue to power most cars on the market. A few electric vehicles, suitable only for use around town, will become available; eventually, you may see a lot of hybrid vehicles, which combine a fuel-burning powerplant which generates electricity with an electric drive. The best form of powerplant would be a fuel cell, which could develop electricity from hydrogen–everybody’s favorite fuel of the future because, when you burn it, instead of producing smog and carbon dioxide, all you produce is water.

Cars will also begin to be made out of more exotic materials, such as aluminum and carbon fiber. The problem with both of these materials, however, is the cost, and it’s the cost that will also limit just how quickly any of these new technologies make it into our garages.

Expect to see them first on luxury cars, and only after a few years filter down to more low-cost vehicles. And, of course, even after collision-avoidance devices, drowsiness-warning systems and fuel-cell power are standard, the high-tech vehicles that employ them will continue to share the roads with everything from 1990 Plymouth Lasers to 1954 Studebaker sports coupes.

The future, you see, doesn’t arrive all in one piece; it sneaks up on you. But it IS coming.

And by the time I can afford a new car, who knows? Even tiny nuclear reactors may be standard.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1997/04/future-cars/

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