The Dream of the Smart Car: Where We Stand Today
The sci-fi promise of a flying car might still be a ways off, but amazing smart car tech is within reach right now. We track down the most exciting new smart car developments.
Who wouldn’t want a smarter car? One that, say, finds its way to the perfect parking spot, warns you when it’s time to replace a timing belt to avoid catastrophic engine failure, or helps you to parallel park?
Your testosterone-crazy teenage son out on a joyride—that’s who might not be thrilled about the prospect. Why not? Well, the smart car will know where he drove, how fast he went, and might even try to talk him out of putting the pedal to the metal. After a discreet beep, the onboard text-to-speech will interrupt his Bluetooth playlist: “Warning. Your speed exceeds the safe limits for this vehicle. I have been instructed to notify the owner of this vehicle at this time.”
Talk about a buzz kill.
And speaking of buzz, an owner of a new smart car might want to stick to moderate alcohol consumption. Nissan is promoting its drunk-driving prevention concept car, which doesn’t just monitor the type of driving behavior mentioned above. Among its array of drunk-driver sensing tools include:
A high-sensitivity alcohol sensor is built into the transmission shift knob, which is able to detect the presence of alcohol in the perspiration of the driver’s palm as he or she attempts to start driving. When this sensor detects an alcohol level above the predetermined threshold, the system automatically locks the transmission, immobilizing the car. Check out the word on Nissan's 2016 vehicles to see if a model with this tech is right for you.
Vehicle technology is changing fast—contrast how cars have changed in the past twenty years compared to the previous fifty. Technology promises to transform not only how cars work, but our expectations about what is possible when we have wheels. Take the driverless car, or what the military more aptly calls the “Unmanned Guided Vehicle” (UGV). Google’s high profile foray into this technology has already generated a lot of chatter in the tech and auto worlds, but, despite projects such as Uber’s Pittsburgh experiment, some believe the driverless car is not only far off, but far less important for today’s drivers. While the driverless concept is a huge “disruptor,” there are numerous, near-term impacts of semi-autonomous vehicles at the intersection of driver, vehicle and society.
Newer cars are already smarter than most owners might realize. For example, so-called stop-start engines are increasingly prevalent in-market. On the surface, it’s a simple principle: turn off the engine when it’s not needed, in order to save fuel. The feature was initially used on hybrids, but conventional gas engines, such as some models of the 2015 Ford F-150, include it, as well.
Dig into the technology behind the feature and it’s clear that auto engineers had to contend with much more than the equivalent of simply turning the ignition key. You want the stereo to stay on when the engine was turned off? At night, you want the lights to stay on until you’re ready to turn them off? To orchestrate these things, software must make decisions on when to stop and when to start up again—and to do so unobtrusively.
Car as Individualized Mobile Data Center
What’s on the horizon is a mix of the straightforward and the exciting. While aimed at the smartphone market, continued increases in processor speeds, lower power consumption, and HD displays will also lend new capabilities to smart vehicles.
Already on tap with the Audi Q7, as an example: a “virtual cockpit,” replacing the ancient speedometer with a 12.3” LCD screen. It’s HD and includes Google Earth in 3D, with integrated cellular, radio, and multimedia capabilities. It self-reports speed, engine revs, various environmental temperatures, and fuel level. To engage, a driver simply clicks on buttons on the steering wheel. Menus are designed simply, for convenience and usability. Three Audi models—the Audi 2016 TT, 2017 A3 sedan, and R8 sports car—all offer the package.
And the smart car, of course, needs to be an Internet protocol powerhouse, with wireless connectivity and plenty of support for multiple devices—front seat and back. Autonet Mobile recognizes this with a package specifically designed and certified for vehicles; Autonet touts their offering as a “telematics and application service platform for the automotive market.”
Just the Beginning
And all of this is just the beginning of what could be possible with a smart car. On the horizon are smart car services that provide a range of amazing promises, from in-vehicle, real time support for diabetics through wearable tech, to delivering interactive help guides for speedier DIY repairs, and, perhaps most dramatically, deeper integration with “smart city” networks for parking, traffic, weather and law enforcement.
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