Over the past century, many ideas that were once science fiction have become reality. Jules Verne’s moon voyage became the Apollo program, Mark Twain’s telectroscope is today’s Internet, and Leonardo da Vinci’s fanciful drawings have become helicopters and airplanes. Although “Back to the Future” may have been overly optimistic with its visions of flying cars by 2015, several automotive advancements that were once considered science fiction could be making their way into your local dealership by 2020. Five years may not seem like much time, but with the recent pace of innovation, exciting new technologies like biometric authentication, solar-powered vehicles and even driverless cars could be arriving sooner than you think.
Augmented Reality Windshields for Convenience and Safety
Over the past few years, head-up displays have been migrating from fighter jets into high-end luxury vehicles, displaying basic information directly in front of the driver. In the next few years, automakers are planning to take this technology a step forward, turning your windshield into a giant interactive display. These interactive windshields can display navigation directions, give you warnings about problems with your car, or tell you about the song being played on the radio.
However, these screens won’t stop with simply displaying information; by taking advantage of augmented reality technology from devices such as Google Glass, your windshield will help you react faster and more intelligently to the world around you. For example, if your car detects an unseen vehicle blocking your path on a foggy night, the screen could highlight an outline of the vehicle on your windshield. As this technology matures and costs drop, it will become increasingly versatile, with wide adoption by the general public.
Biometric Authentication Improves Security
Increasingly, automakers are adding biometric authentication to control access to vehicles. Biometric authentication uses unique biometric markers, such as retina scans or fingerprints, to identify authorized users of the vehicle. Some basic systems could be used to lock or unlock your car, but as the technology gains wider acceptance, the very concept of a key-based ignition system could go away. Facial recognition software could recognize you as you approach your car and unlock your doors as you arrive, turning on your engine automatically as you enter the vehicle.
Saved profiles for each user could automatically adjust minor details, such as seat and mirror positions, to fit each driver, and some profiles could be given usage restrictions. For example, a young driver might only be allowed a certain number of passengers, or he might have his maximum speed capped.
Biometrically secured vehicles won’t be as vulnerable to theft; without a physical lock or ignition switch, thieves will find it more difficult to steal your car. If a thief does somehow get into your car, the new systems can alert you to an unauthorized entry, allowing you to react quickly.
New Types of Fuel
By 2020, automakers expect to offer a number of vehicles to take advantage of sustainable technologies. For example, electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular and affordable. Recent developments in batteries and fast charging technology aim to eliminate two of the traditional complaints about electric cars: range and charging time. In the near future, electric cars will be able to drive hundreds of miles on a single charge, and drivers will be able to recharge their vehicles completely in under 30 minutes.
However, plug-in electric cars won’t be the only options for eco-conscious drivers. By covering the roof of their vehicle in flexible solar cells, drivers will be able to harvest the energy of the sun to recharge their cars. Freed from the tether of a plug, these cars provide drivers with hundreds of miles of range. Until recently, solar cells were too inefficient to power a practical road vehicle; most solar cars were built for specialty races, seating only the driver and barely driving faster than a bicycle. However, just last year, a Dutch university research team developed Stella, a prototype solar vehicle that can seat four, reach speeds of up to 80 mph, and drive for over 500 miles on a single charge.
Fuel cell cars, such as the Honda FCV that was revealed on the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity to power the vehicle; the only gas coming from the tailpipe of a fuel cell car is water vapor. Fuel cell cars give drivers both the efficiency and reliability of an electric car with the flexibility of a gasoline-powered car.
Driver Monitoring Systems Reduce Accidents
As much as car manufacturers have invested in safety technology, they haven’t been able to address the leading cause of accidents: human error. Driver monitoring systems aim to address this shortfall, taking active steps to improve driver safety. In a limited sense, these technologies are already in use; for example, many of today’s cars will remind occupants to buckle their seat belts if the car detects that someone isn’t wearing their seat belt.
By 2020, these systems will be more robust. Internal cameras will track where the driver’s vision is focused; if your eyes wander from the road too long, the car may sound an alert or even slow down. Other sensors could track your level of wakefulness, warning you to pull over if you’re dangerously fatigued. Similar sensors could detect intoxication or distracted driving.
In addition, vehicles could look after the physical health of their drivers and passengers. Heart rate monitors could detect the early warning signs of several different health conditions, such as a heart attack, and they would also use the heart rate to detect whether the driver is tired or falling asleep. Such systems might pose a problem to individuals who are concerned about their privacy, but the overall benefits would be immense.
Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication Increases Safety and Improves Traffic Flow
Although today’s cars are stuffed full of smart technology, they’re silent geniuses; they can’t talk to their fellow cars. Drivers have to rely on the attentiveness of other drivers to safely navigate the road, using flashing lights and honking horns to communicate their intentions to other drivers. In the future, however, cars will talk with each other, sharing vital information such as speed and position.
The benefits of this technology are obvious to anyone who’s ever almost merged into a car in their blind spot. When the two cars can talk to each other, they’ll be able to alert their drivers to the proximity of the other vehicle. A car that’s about to speed through a red light can warn other vehicles at the intersection, preventing a devastating accident. Vehicles that are forced to slow down unexpectedly can warn cars behind them of the sudden stop, helping the following cars to avoid a rear-end collision.
This technology can even help remedy traffic congestion. A merging vehicle can broadcast a temporary slow-down signal to other cars, allowing the vehicle to quickly merge into traffic without forcing drivers to engage in a confusing and frustrating battle of acceleration and braking. Large-scale communication could also warn drivers of traffic congestion, allowing some drivers to take an alternate route around the congestion.
Eliminating the driver from the car may seem like a wild idea, but there are some tantalizing benefits to removing the human element from driving. While driving, people often get bored and inattentive, taking their attention away from the road to play with their phones. With a driverless car, the driver could be freed of the need to pay attention to the road, changing the commute from a time sink into a nice stretch of personal time.
Of course, there are obvious difficulties in adding a driverless car to the road. First, engineers will have to develop an artificial intelligence robust enough to navigate the unpredictable environment of the open road. The cars would need to be equipped with a whole host of sensors, with enough redundancy to ensure that they’re never driving blind. Finally, lawmakers would need to hammer out a number of thorny issues, such as deciding liability if a driverless car causes an accident. Some states have taken the first steps in making autonomous cars street ready.
Many manufacturers are actively developing driverless cars. Audi recently sent its self-driving A7 prototype on a successful 550-mile road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Google has invested heavily in its driverless fleet, which now includes 23 vehicles. The self-driving cars have logged more than 700,000 miles on the road with only 12 minor incidents, none of which were the fault of the self-driving cars.
Although many of these ideas may seem like science fiction, technology improves at an accelerating pace.
Which of these technologies interests you the most? Which one would you like to see become reality?
Technologies that seemed impossible 15 years ago are now part of everyday life, and concepts that sound ludicrous today could be reality by 2020. From cars that run on the energy of the sun to fingerprint ignition systems, these ideas will alter the landscape of driving forever.