From on-board radar and Wi-Fi to electronic steering, amazing technologies already here or soon coming promise to create a new automotive era

Last year, General Motors (GM ) made a splash with a concept car called Hy-wire that features Nintendo-style handgrips for steering, plus brakes and an accelerator that work electronically instead of via pressure from the driver’s foot. Tired of driving? Hand the controls to your passenger for awhile.

That’s pie in the sky for now, but come 2012 or 2015 a surprising amount of it may be for real. Cars will still have a steering wheel. They’ll also probably still have a conventional gasoline engine instead of the Hy-wire’s fuel-cell-and-hydrogen powerplant. Bernd Bohn, a top executive at Robert Bosch, the huge German auto-components company, recently predicted that internal combustion engines will still have 95% of the market in 2015 and 85% in 2025.

“MORE PROMISE THAN EVER.” Electronics will have replaced most mechanical systems, however, and even midrange models will be bristling with sensors, cameras, computer screens, and Wi-Fi connections — the result of a new era in automobile technology that’s just dawning. One indication of the changing times is that over the past two years Bosch has nearly tripled, to 300, the number of its development engineers working on driver-assistance systems, a fancy name for advanced electronics.

Another sign is the comparison drawn by John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “I’ve been involved [with auto research] for more than 30 years, and there’s more action and more promise for improvement now than I’ve ever seen.” Among the advances that seem likely within the next decade:

• Safety systems will move from passive protection, such as airbags, to active systems that use radar and cameras to watch for danger. “We’ve put airbags just about every place you can,” notes John Weiner, a U.S. product-planning manager at Toyota (TM ). “Within the next five years, the car will use algorithms to anticipate hazards and intervene or warn the driver.”

• Car keys will be replaced by credit-card style systems already used in some Cadillacs, Infinitis, and BMWs. Already, says Michael Gautier, North American director of corporate technology for Siemens VDO Automotive, the auto components and systems unit of the German electronics giant Siemens (SI ), keyless entry is set to debut on some 40 different cars over the next three years.

• Every new car will come with a computer-like screen mounted on the dash. It’ll display a navigation system that uses a global positioning satellite plus onboard DVDs to provide directions, maps, and information on hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. The video screen also “will show you certain features within the car and connect to other devices such as PDAs and cell phones,” says Thilo Koslowski, San Jose (Calif.)-based lead vice-president in the automotive group for business-advisory firm Gartner G2.

• Nearly every car will have a Wi-Fi hookup that automatically provides the weather, news, and other information. “We’re going to see hot spots in places like gas stations and restaurants,” predicts Peter Wengert, a marketing manager for automotive products at Microsoft (MSFT ), which is pushing Windows Automotive as a software standard for handling the new communications functions in cars.

• Cars will increasingly collect data that can be shared with dealers, manufacturers, and even other vehicles. Dealers or manufacturers, for instance, may do remote diagnostics to help troubleshoot a roadside breakdown.

• Within 15 years, the average vehicle will be equipped with 10 to 15 cameras to help parents keep an eye on their kids and help drivers detect blinds spots, Siemens’ Gautier predicts. Many cars may have cameras in the front bumper to “see” around corners as the driver eases out of a driveway or alley.

• Cars with 40-volt electrical systems will become the standard because today’s 12-volt systems can’t easily accommodate all the new electronic gizmos.

• Voice commands, already used in some BMWs, Jaguars, and Lexuses, will become far more common to help drivers juggle the proliferating functions in their cars.

• Brake-by-wire and accelerate-by-wire — where pressing the pedal sends an electronic signal rather than activating a physical connection to the engine or brakes — will become common. All Mercedes models have used brake-by-wire since 1994, and the Chevy Corvette and all recent Audis already have electronic gas pedals. Emergency-brake handles will be replaced by an electronic switch, as they have been already in many luxury cars.

• Increasingly, cars will be programmable. “We have a vision that you can use electronics to let you choose what kind of vehicle you want to drive,” says Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. “You can have it be sporty or luxurious, as you choose.”

On the new Audi A8, each driver can program in not only his or her seat and steering-wheel settings but raise and lower road clearance to change the car’s “ride” as well (see “Tooling Around in Teutonic Technocars”). Ron Miller, project leader for Intelligent Vehicle Technologies at Ford (F ), predicts that by 2010 most new vehicles will have reconfigurable speedometer and other displays with changeable type size — for aging baby boomers who don’t want to wear glasses while driving. “Today it’s probably a $400 option,” Miller says. “In a year or two it will be $200” and will drop from there.
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