If Back to the Future II got it right, by 2015 flying cars will be whizzing across the skyways of America -- in towns even as sleepy as Hill Valley. In reality, the marketplace won’t have a Hovercraft in two years.
Though plucky startups like Terrafugia are hard at work trying to realize Robert Zemeckis’ vision, the near (alternate) future will have the average automobile buyer settling for something a tad less lofty. We’re in store for some nifty standard features for sure, they’ll just have be enjoyed on all four wheels.
The airbag of tomorrow is just about here. No longer reserved for luxury brands or in pricey options packages, safety systems that use radar and camera sensors to keep cars at a safe distance from those ahead, alert drivers of an impending crash, and automatically apply the brakes in an emergency are destined to become as ubiquitous as tensioned seatbelts.
Until recently, only the wealthy could afford to suffer from lead foot or road-induced narcolepsy. But veer over Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Audi. Consumers with more modest budgets (between $30,000 and $40,000) can currently shop for vehicles with collision-warning technology in mainstream models like the Chevrolet Malibu, Subaru Legacy, Ford Edge, Volvo S60, Toyota Prius, and Honda Crosstour -- to name a half-dozen -- with many, many more to come.
Blind spots behind our cars reportedly take the lives of 228 people on average every year in back-over accidents, and injure another 17,000. Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration intends to kick this problem to the curb. Beginning in January 2015 -- a date that was recently extended from its original deadline of next year -- automakers will be required to make rearview cameras standard equipment in all new vehicles.
But eyes in the back of our cars are just the beginning. Get ready for side cameras that activate automatically with a flip of the turn signal, such as the LaneWatch system from Honda. And feast your eyes on Nissan’s Around View Monitor, offering a virtual, 360-degree scene above the car. Currently ranging in sticker price from about $1,000 to $2500, with time and higher demand these systems will fast become cheaper and more widely accessible.
Threatening to negate every well-intentioned safety feature in the roadsters of the future is the fact that Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter are about to be sitting on the center console. And with a real-time text-to-speech interface, our friends will get to hear via our status updates about the telephone pole ahead, just as we’re barreling into it.
The 2.0 version of in-car connectivity came from the glitchy, hardware-based, MyFord Touch platform, but General Motors is leading the charge to bring 4G connectivity to the mass market. The automaker’s 2014 fleet of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac, Opel, and Vauxhall brands will come hardwired with Wi-Fi and Internet capability, accessed via a subscription data plan with AT&T (NYSE:T).
Terrestrial and even satellite radio will eventually be pushed off the dash in favor of systems that connect automatically to sites like Pandora (NYSE:P) or the driver’s iTunes library. In April, a partnership between Ford and Spotify gave drivers with a Spotify premium account the ability to plug into their streaming music account via the Ford SYNC AppLink, which is voice-activated and dash-controlled.
Alternative energy options
If the 375% jump in sales of Ford’s hybrid fleet between this year and last is any indication, auto companies will increasingly be rolling greener vehicles off their assembly lines. But the offspring of the first generation of battery-run hybrids may face a rocky road if they don’t figure out how to gain power while dropping weight and shed their eco-aloof lead innards.
These issues have ushered in an era of research into a variety of alternative alternatives -- some of which are ready for prime time. Smarter batteries comprised of both nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion are being developed as well as body panels designed to store energy and charge faster than conventional car batteries.
When Volvo launches its 2014 V60 plug-in hybrid in September, consumers will be treated to the one of the most sci-fi car accessories ever. The technological spectacle that is the photovoltaic pavilion is a giant, fabric solar panel that will charge the V60 and then conveniently fold up into its trunk. Just don’t expect it to make the dealer options list quite yet.
Most major car companies have been racing around the hydrogen track for years, but the one that actually crossed the finish line is probably the biggest long shot of the lot. This year Hyundai (OTCMKTS:HYMLF) produced the first mass-produced fuel cell crossover, currently available to city fleets in Europe with plans for a consumer rollout by 2015. Toyota and Honda will likely share second place -- also in 2015. Nissan is a not-too-distant third in 2017. Sadly, the cars won’t come anywhere near our shores without stations to fill them up.
Now that we’ve settled comfortably into the Space Age -- the Soviets having gotten the ball rolling with Sputnik some 56 years ago -- our cars finally seem ready to venture into truly high-tech territory. The heads-up display, or HUD, is as close, at least visually, as we’ve come so far.
Projected on the windshield is a virtual dashboard displaying the speed and engine RPM -- and even turn-by-turn navigation directions and the speed limit -- directly in the driver’s line of sight, and thus keeping eyes peeled to the road.
HUD runs at a retail cost of about $1,000 and is, again, an option currently available only on the Cadillacs of cars -- literally on the brand’s 2013 models -- and other high-end manufacturers like Audi (ETR:NSU) and BMW (ETR:BMW). Over 800,000 cars with HUD units were sold worldwide in 2012, and that number is expected to increase tenfold over the next decade.
But, right now, thanks to the GPS maker Garmin (NASDAQ:GRMN), even drivers behind the wheel of a Pinto can experience HUD in a portable display unit, for only $150.RELATED: WHY AMERICANS STILL DON'T DRIVE ELECTRIC CARS
Augmented reality dashboards
We’re not there yet, but this little sister of HUD is hot on the trail. Augmented reality, or AR, will project contextual information -- from traffic data to objects on the road -- and overlay it on top of what the driver is actually seeing through the windshield. Think of it as Google Glass (NASDAQ:GOOG) for your car.
So, when you’re driving in Portland and you’re not sure who that bearded concrete giant is looming over the road ahead, AR will let you know it’s Paul Bunyan, pinpoint its precise distance from the car, and offer to add it to your favorite places.
One of the first glimpses of AR was caught in prototype form at last year’s CES from Mercedes’ (OTCMKTS:DDAIF) and its Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience (DICE) feature.
If you can hold out another 10 years for your next car purchase, you could have access to the next best thing to a flying car.
Google hasn’t spent the last several years tooling around Nevada, California, and Florida in cars sporting cameras, radar, and laser range finders (LIDAR) for the heck of it. The tech giant has been rigorously testing and tweaking the self-driving car to meet safety standards in preparation for its eventual debut.
Ford, one of the top contenders to deliver the product, thinks a driverless utopia -- where cars communicate with one another, rush-hour gridlock and traffic accidents are but a memory, and we literally get to fall asleep at the wheel -- is about a decade away.
Until then, we’ll have to settle for cars that park themselves, which is pretty cool too.
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