The Cars of the Future – Self Driving and Socially Networked

When it comes to imagining what the cars of the future will look like, Hollywood has come up with a few classic examples. Be it the amazing flying cars in Back to the Future II and Bladerunner, or the cars that drive themselves and are self aware in I Robot. But what will the car of the future really look like? Apparently, Hollywood got it almost spot on.

Future Cars

Some car designers and automotive visionaries say that by 2030, city streets will teem with small, driverless cars whose wireless capabilities direct traffic flow smoothly, rendering traffic lights unnecessary. The cars themselves will be made of collapsible, lightweight material, allowing them to be tucked into the tiniest parking crevices. “Cloud computing will enable riders to work or play games during their commutes while listening to their favorite music as chosen by the car”, says Kevin Dallas, general manager of Microsoft Windows Embedded. The software giant is working with Ford, BMW and others to make vehicles more connected.

“Advances in wireless communications and battery technology have made what once was a far-off idea a near-reality”, says Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst at market researcher IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

Some experts say that within 20 years not as many people will own cars, they may even be sharing them. This would mean less pollution from the massive industrial car factories and less vehicles on the road, leading to less congestion and a reduction of road maintenance needing to be done. The future took a step closer to reality this year when Nevada became the first place anywhere to issue license plates to self-driving cars, allowing Google, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors to further develop and refine robo-driving on the state’s 25,000 miles of road.

Glimpse of the Future

Several recent shows have given us a look at what we could expect in the coming decades:

The EO -At the CeBit computer electronics show in Hanover in March, the blue, egg-shaped electric car was the head-turner as part
of a futuristic exhibit. “It is half-robot, half-car,” says Benjamin Girault, a researcher at DFKI, a research institute that has developed small robots and an underwater rover. In several years, it could be on city streets, outfitted with cameras and lasers, and be controlled remotely, if necessary. An extension added to the back of the car would double the number of passengers, to four. German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, which designed the car, says that in the city, the car’s wheels could be rotated at 90-degree angles so the vehicle could squeeze into a tight parking space. A tablet like dashboard would show battery life, speed and energy use and would allow the driver to shift gears.

The Transition Terrafugia’s flying car is getting closer to its maiden test flight. It is due in modest volume  in 2014. You’ll need a pilot’s license to fly the two-seat car-plane hybrid, with foldable wings, that can fit into a garage. And, oh, about $279,000 to buy it. Its top speeds are 70 mph on the ground and up to 115 mph in the air. About 100 people have put down $10,000 deposits to get on the waiting list for the sci-fi-like vehicle. The Transition, which reached an altitude of 1,400 feet, has a 23-gallon gas tank and can refuel at the average gas station. Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich sees the hybrid as a boon for the aviation industry and a lower-cost alternative for business people who travel frequently within a region. “You can drive in bad weather and fly in good weather,” Dietrich says.

Ford Evos – Ford recently released it’s plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Ford Evos. This concept vehicle can socially network with its driver’s friends and recommend roads and routes that might be quickest or the most fun to drive. The vehicle’s designers want the car to always be connected to the cloud, which will allow it to know the driver’s work schedule, constantly keep tabs on traffic and weather conditions, and assist and monitor the driver in an attempt to “enable a seamless lifestyle between home, office and car linked by access to the driver’€™s personal information.” This sporty four-seat concept car was first rolled out in Germany last year at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. According to Ford, the vehicle gives its driver the ability to tap into this “personal cloud” of information at any time — for example, picking up where the driver left off on that favorite song he or she was listening to inside the house. The vehicle’s smart systems monitor its driver’s “physical state and workload,” adjusting the car’s handling, heating, cooling and music to suit the driver’s level of alertness, perhaps even keeping him from falling asleep.

Social Cars

Cars like the Ford Evos will probably be the first type of “Future Cars” that we will start seeing on the roads.

“We used to talk about surfing the Internet. Soon, it just may be driving the Internet,” says Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer at security software company Bit9.

Internet-wired cars will help usher in an era of car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication, which has been discussed for years but is becoming more of a reality now that U.S. automakers have agreed on a standardized frequency on which to transmit information. Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a version ofWi-Fi designed for automotive, is considered a cornerstone technology, but adoption will take time.

In an oft-mentioned example of DSRC’s potential, a car 100 feet ahead of another could alert the trailing auto about black ice on a ramp, giving the second car the chance to adjust its electronic-stability system or avoid the ramp. Car-to-grid communications, meanwhile, could record suspension activity on city roads, and relay that data to officials to fix damaged roads.

“The car is going to act like a data-collection probe,” Tom Baloga, BMW’s vice president of engineering, said of his company’s pending car-to-car communication system. A car’s location will be transmitted, anonymously, to other cars and infrastructure. The data, he says, would be used to study traffic flow, slippery conditions, bottlenecks and potholes.”

Less Accidents

Raj Rajkumar, who heads Carnegie Mellon’s GM autonomous driving lab, argues that in 15 to 20 years, when driverless vehicles become fixtures on our roads, they will help dramatically reduce accidents, as well as the need for big, steel-framed cars to protect drivers.

“Most, if not all, accidents are because of human error,” he says. “People get drunk, tired, mad, text.  In the future, cars will be smaller and lighter, which means better gas mileage, a healthier environment, less traffic jams — even fewer traffic lights.”

Here is an infographic showing the benefits of driverless cars compared to the shocking statistics of accidents causes by a lapse of concentration on the drivers behalf. It really does seem that taking human error out of the equation could decrease the risk of road accidents and fatalities. We will have to see what new developments will bring onto our streets and motorways, but it seems that some of the cars from the future are already in the here and now.