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“Things are moving really fast,” says Anna Stefanopoulou, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. “Automotive technology hasn’t advanced this quickly since the era of the Model T.”
At the heart of the revolution lie three intersecting trends. The first is , which has brought escalating improvements in computing power that ultimately will result in full autonomy. In the meantime, the increased computing power is finding expression in features like lane assist and automatic braking systems. Cellular technology, meanwhile, is patching automobiles into the global information network, turning car owners into ride-share customers and immersing drivers in a multifaceted information environment. And third, the rapid evolution of electric and hybrid engine systems is transforming the economics of transportation.
In short, cars are getting smarter, more connected, and more efficient. And while this process will continue for decades to come, you can expect some of the most dramatic advancements over the next few years.
One example: vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Engineers at Toyota have spent the past decade developing dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) systems that allow vehicles to share data about their speed, location, and environment over radio frequencies with other cars and trucks within a quarter mile. The company plans to start rolling out the technology in the United States in 2021. “Pretty much all our vehicles will have it by the mid-2020s,” says Andrew Coetzee, group vice president, product planning and strategy, at Toyota Motor North America.
The more cars have DSRC, the more useful it will be in providing an information-dense picture of the road environment. While current-generation sensors can detect if the car directly ahead has thrown on its brakes, for instance, a vehicle equipped with DSRC will identify trouble happening out of sight further ahead. “In addition to safety benefits,” says Coetzee, “we also have deployed other features, such as the ability for dynamic cruise control to interact with other vehicles for maximum comfort and efficiency.”
In Japan, 100,000 vehicles equipped with DSRC are already on the road, and both General Motors and Volkswagen are working toward deploying their own systems. At one time, automakers hoped that the government would require vehicle-to-vehicle communication in new vehicles, but that effort has fallen by the wayside, so automakers are hoping that consumers will embrace the system on its merits. “What we’re trying to do at Toyota is simply to say that this makes sense for consumers,” Coetzee says. “It’s important that we get the technology out into other vehicles.”
Of course, even after a feature is deployed in new cars, there’s a lag time before a new technology can take hold. The Center for Automotive Research points out that the average vehicle on the road in 2016 was 11.6 years old. In other words, most cars driven today were built before the iPhone came out. (And that's without regard to auto companies changing the hardware lineup.)
It takes time, too, for people to understand and embrace the latest developments. And not every technology is equally appropriate for every environment, use case, or market segment.
So, while the shift toward electric powertrains is going to be a powerful overall trend in the long term—Volvo, for one, has announced that starting next year, it will launch only electrified vehicles—batteries will not completely replace gasoline and diesel anytime soon. Oh, electrically-powered vehicle are making a difference; at a climate change conference last year, the Virgin Formula E team explained that Renault has already adapted technology developed for its Formula E cars in consumer vehicles.
However, “U.S. auto executives see 80 to 90 percent of new cars in North America having some kind of internal combustion engine in circa 2030, with perhaps about 40 percent of the new cars being hybrid,” says Charles Mendler, founder of automotive engineering firm Envera. That means, for now, the largest overall efficiency gains are going to be found in optimizing internal combustion. And automotive engineers have taken up the challenge. Infiniti, for instance, unveiled a variable compression-ratio engine that changes how high the piston reaches at the top of each stroke. Currently only deployed in concept cars, the engine was two decades in development and promises a fuel economy gain of 27 percent over previous models.
Mazda, meanwhile, is working on an engine called Skyactiv-X that will combine elements of traditional gasoline and diesel engines to achieve a theoretical thermal efficiency of 56 percent, 27 percent better than its current best performer. If it can hit its marks, Mazda calculates that the system’s well-to-wheel efficiency (that is, including energy costs associated with fuel production and power distribution) will match that of an all-electric powertrain.
Efficiency is important, but the reality is that consumers often make their decisions less on pure pragmatism than on emotion. A car isn’t just transportation, after all; it’s also an experienced environment. Users want it to be beautiful, responsive, and even entertaining. An automobile should reflect one’s identity, and in an age where our sense of identity is increasingly shaped by mobile computing, cars are coming to seem more and more like giant inhabitable smartphones with wheels. Increasingly, interfaces rely on large touch screens and voice command rather than on fixed-function knobs and buttons. Everything is fluid, customizable, and infinitely updatable.
This shift means that the interface between human and software needs to be as intuitive and adaptable as possible. A vision for how cars of the future will circumvent this issue was presented by German manufacturer Bosch at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. Its concept interior includes a voice-activated control system that not only responds to spoken commands but can identify which person is doing the talking and tailor its response accordingly. For instance, if asked, “What do I have scheduled today?” it will access that individual’s calendar from the cloud.
Direct tactile inputs, meanwhile, can be made in a screen in front of the driver that replaces the normal instrument cluster. A haptic screen, in which tiny movable elements can be programmed to create a variety of smooth, rough, and textured shapes, allows the user to feel around the interface by touch. Bosch says the system reduces driver distraction by 15 to 20 percent.
In an even more futuristic bid to keep drivers focused, the system includes a smartphone lockout system that detects where in the cabin a phone is physically located and then locks the phone’s screen if it is too close to the driver. Only when it’s in a passenger’s hands does the phone become usable again.
Needless to say, systems like Bosch’s are not only going to be radically different experiences from those of past generations, but they’ll be constantly updated with automatically downloaded and installed software tweaks.
It’s all a far cry from the days when radio preselect buttons were the height of technology. Between the cabin environment, the powertrain, and the networked computing power, the generation of cars now on engineers' drafting tables is going to remake consumers’ understanding of what being on the road is all about. And soon enough, no doubt, those expectations will be overturned as well. While we can’t know exactly what the future holds, one thing's for certain: It’s only going to keep changing faster.
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.