Cars are rapidly becoming computers on wheels. Electronics and software control nearly every working part in a car, from the engine to the gas gauge to the window. Cars have sensors and know how to parallel park. Many vehicles are connected to the Internet to stream movies and provide maps and other location services.
As these systems mature, cars will practically drive themselves. Internet-connected cars will be able to monitor traffic and contribute to the whole system running more efficiently. "It will be like automotive air traffic control," said Jim Patterson, associate editor at Kiplinger's.
The transitions won't always be smooth, Patterson noted. Cars that are already equipped with the ability to "speak" to each other are one thing, but the lifetime of a car on the road often far exceeds the typical gadget's life cycle. "I see an interesting transition period," he said. "As the new cars that do have these features come in and the old ones are still around," he said.
Here are eight advanced vehicle technologies that will become ubiquitous by the end of the decade.
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Parallel parking has been the bane of driver's ed students. But assistance is coming from several car makers such as Ford, Lincoln, Toyota and BMW. All of them use some combination of sensors, such as sonar and cameras that collect information from the surroundings and then send it to a computer that analyzes how the car should move in order to get into a parallel parking space.
Ford's system in the Fusion, for instance, uses ultrasonic sensors that check how far the car is from the nearest vehicle and manages the steering, so the driver only has to work the brakes and the gas.
"It creates this view of the environment to get a trajectory that gets you in," noted Michael Kane, vehicle engineering supervisor at Ford.
Drive Within the Lines
Lane-sensing systems alert a driver that a vehicle has drifted over the traffic line, and in some models the technology automatically keeps the car between the lanes.
In Lexus vehicles, cameras see the lines painted on the road. If the car veers over a line, the system automatically adjusts the steering wheel. Ford has a similar system, except that in addition to adjusting the steering wheel, the safety technology also vibrates the steering wheel to simulate the "rumble strips" on a road's shoulder.
Keep All Eyes on the Road
Some cars can tell if a driver's eyes are open and focused on the road. The technology typically employs LED lights that illuminate a driver's face and allows a camera to see where the driver is looking -- or not.
"It just looks like a dim light," said Charles Hubbard a dealer education administrator at "Lexus College," which brings dealers up to date about features of the cars.
If the system determines that the driver isn’t paying attention, it sounds a beep or some other alert. If the driver doesn’t acknowledge the alert, the computer begins applying the brake. At that point, the driver ought to notice something and put her foot on the brake. It all happens within a fraction of a second, which reduces the odds that the driver will get into an accident because she has fallen asleep.
Mercedes-Benz has a similar system that learns how a driver drives, recording characteristics such as acceleration, steering and stopping. By comparing the stored information with real-time driving data, the car can make an educated guess about whether or not the driver is tired. If the answer is yes, a warning sounds.
Sense Other Vehicles
By the time a driver notices that the car in front of her is braking, it might already be too late, especially if the cars are following each other closely. The problem is that human reflexes simply aren't fast enough to respond in those situations.
But technology is. More and more cars are being equipped with sensors that determine how far a driver is from other cars on the road and links that information to an automatic braking system. Forward- and rear-facing radars, cameras and infrared illuminators work together to keep track of how fast the vehicles ahead and behind are moving and adjust the speed of the car.
Check the Blind Spot
Sensing technologies are also useful for checking blind spots. In a late-model Lexus, data from rear-sending radar feeds a computer that auto-engages the brakes if it "sees" an object behind the driver. It may also flash the mirror to alert the driver that someone's approaching in the blind spot.
Ford has also equipped some models with radar in the rear quarter panels to scan for vehicles that might be in one's blind spot and then offer a warning.
See in the Dark
Headlights can only shine so far. But infrared (IR) light, which is only visible to computers and not people, propagates twice as far as visible light. That makes it useful for seeing the dark road far up ahead without blinding oncoming vehicles. If the infrared beams see something, the computer alerts the driver.
Cars that use infrared technology to see in the dark either employ passive IR or active IR. Passive works using sensors that detect objects that give off heat. The sensors can detect people, animals or other vehicles up to 300 yards away. When an object is sensed, the computer projects an icon on the windshield or the dashboard as an alert. Because the range is long and the sensor is collecting information from ambient infrared light waves, the resolution of the image tends to be grainy.
Active systems shine infrared light out in the dark like along with the light from headlines. The range is actually less than the active system, only up to 220 yards, but the resolution of the images is higher than passive systems.
Talk to Other Cars
Cars already access the Internet. But wireless technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth could turn highways into moving networks, where cars are the nodes. These so-called mesh networks do not need the Internet at all in order to work. Instead, the cars use a wireless technology to talk to each other and create their own self-contained network, where information about such things as traffic conditions is shared.
A network could work efficiently to tell a driver not only that the car just ahead is braking, but that the car a mile ahead has stalled and traffic is backing up. That would allow the driver to take an alternate route. Besides traffic management, this kind of network could also provide more capacity to those passengers streaming movies or playing online games.
Take Over the Wheel
While there are several technologies to help people drive better, there's at least one that taking over the driving completely. The system is being developed as part of the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project, a joint venture between several European technology companies and Volvo.
It works using a road train, a group of cars lead electronically by a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver. Using a combination of wireless technology, cameras, radar and laser sensors, the vehicles in the train monitor the lead vehicle and others in their vicinity. The "train" cars turn, accelerate and brake in the same way as the lead vehicle.
The system was tested recently on a roadway outside Barcelona. It isn't clear yet how they would get drivers to join the platoons, but the tests show that the system can work.
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