Car technology of the future
We look at some of the technology that will shape the cars of the near future as well as the roads on which they drive...
It’s predicted that cars will change more in the next five to 10 years than they have over the past 50. The driving forces behind the changes are improving road safety, lowering emissions and taking some of the stress out of driving.
Some advances will be tied in with the increased uptake of electric cars, but the biggest influences will be automated driving technologies and connectedness. These are set to transform the whole driving experience.
Safety testing body Euro NCAP is pushing ahead with its Vision Zero ambition to stop people from dying on the road. In doing so, it has set out a timeline for 2020-2025 of when it will start testing a range of new technologies.
In 2020, the body started testing automatic emergency steering, driver monitoring systems and automatic emergency braking systems that work at junctions and when you’re reversing out of a parking space. You can find many of these technologies on the most modern cars right now, because they’re necessary to gain Euro NCAP’s full five-star safety rating, an accolade that every mainstream car maker strives for.
In the near future, though, cars won’t only be able to protect people from harm; they’ll also be capable of giving you lots of useful, real-time information. For example, you’ll be able to ask the car to find you a restaurant, reserve you a parking spot nearby and then give you directions
to get there. And if your car is driving autonomously, it could even project a three-dimensional digital avatar to keep you company.
More than half of the cars in the world are already connected to the internet, and future vehicles will also communicate with each other, road infrastructure, intelligent junctions and smart street lamps in a network known as the Internet of Things. Your car will be able to use all the information that these upload to give you advance warning of any potential hazards or hold-ups along your chosen route. In short, driving will become smarter and safer than ever before, with less time spent in traffic jams.
1. Virtual door mirrors
Instead of mirrors, there’s a camera on each side of the car that sends live footage to screens in the corners of the dashboard or in the doors. These cameras generate less wind noise and aerodynamic drag (important for the range of electric cars), minimise blindspots and provide a clearer view in poor weather conditions.
The cameras automatically alter their view to cope with motorway driving, cornering and parking, and if the screens are touch-sensitive, the driver can use his or her fingers to zoom in to see specific areas in more detail.
When can I have them? Lexus became the first to use this technology in late 2018 on the ES executive saloon. However, it offers this only in Japan, so our first taste came with the Audi E-tron electric SUV, which began offering virtual door mirrors earlier this year as a £1250 option. They’re standard on the Honda E small car, too.
2. Digital rear-view mirror
At the flick of a switch, the rear-view mirror can be turned into a high-definition screen showing an extra-wide (50deg) view of the road behind. This eliminates the usual blindspots and the problem of the driver being unable to see properly past tall passengers or bulky luggage in the back.
Furthermore, a digital rear-view mirror provides better visibility in low light than a conventional mirror and is angled so that reflections don’t adversely affect your view.
When can I have it? Although digital rear-view mirrors started appearing on concept cars many years ago, they didn’t hit the market until 2016, on the Cadillac CT6 luxury saloon. Mainstream availability came only recently, through Jaguar Land Rover’s second-generation Range Rover Evoque, facelifted Jaguar XE and the 2021 version of the Range Rover Velar.
3. Under-car cameras
Cameras in the door mirrors and front grille in effect make the car’s bonnet invisible. Live video footage of the front wheels and the ground beneath the bonnet is displayed on the infotainment screen inside the car, making it easier for you to negotiate tricky parking spaces, tall kerbs and uneven or rutted tracks.
Jaguar Land Rover’s Clearsight system – the first of its kind – shows 8.5 metres forward of the windscreen, 1.2 metres out from each door mirror and 15 metres across the front of the car.
When can I have it? Clearsight’s introduction came in 2019 on the latest Range Rover Evoque.
4. Intelligent headlights
Dipped and high-beam headlights will soon be a thing of the past, because the latest lights simply block out any section of light aimed at an oncoming vehicle so other road users aren’t dazzled. In addition, the length and brightness of the beam is altered automatically depending on the weather and driving conditions.
LED matrix headlights also produce a brighter light with more precise illumination and luminous intensity than regular xenon bulbs, making it easier for drivers to recognise road details and obstacles at night.
When can I have them? The first use of LED matrix headlights came on Audi’s flagship A8 saloon in 2013, and the brand now offers them on several models. Intelligent headlights using similar technology are also now available on some cars from BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Volvo.
5. Intelligent glass
Forget blinds, tomorrow’s cars will have windows and sections of windscreen with built-in sensors that darken the glass in bright sunshine to prevent it from dazzling occupants, keep the car’s interior cool and block out damaging UV rays. Using new liquid crystal film technology, the glass can also be heated without the need for wire filaments.
When can I have it? Some cars already have panoramic sunroofs that can be dimmed via a switch. In the next few years, some cars will also have the ability to dim, brighten and heat windows and other areas of glass automatically.
6. Intelligent tyres
Intelligent tyres will provide drivers and autonomous vehicle fleet operators with real-time information about tread depth and temperature. Continental’s Contisense tyre, for example, uses electrically conductive rubber compounds that continuously monitor the tyre and send out an alert if it moves outside of its safe limits.
If anything penetrates the tyre’s tread or sidewall, an immediate warning is sent out, whereas current tyre pressure monitoring systems simply issue a warning when the tyre pressure drops below a certain level.
When will it arrive? The Contisense tyre is a working concept in development, and several car manufacturers are said to be in discussions about using the technology.
7. Adaptive wheels
Integrated microcompressors adjust the tyre pressure and the width of the wheel rim, changing the amount of rubber that’s in contact with the road to best suit the current conditions. There are four settings: Normal, Wet, Uneven and Slippery. The wheel is made narrower and the tyre pumped up for driving on smooth, dry roads, while width is increased and pressure reduced for slippery surfaces.
The specially developed tyres have three different tread zones for driving on dry, wet and slippery surfaces, and the zone in contact with the road changes depending on which wheel setting is in use.
When can I have them? This technology is under development, with it likely to be available on production cars by the middle of this decade.
8. Turning assistance
A development of automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems, turning assistance uses radar to create 150deg fields of detection at the sides of the car and warn you of any cyclists in your blindspots.
The system activates when you indicate, showing a warning light if there’s a cyclist in a vulnerable position. If you start to turn the wheel regardless and a cyclist is within 1.5 metres, the car will perform an emergency stop.
When can I have it? This system is being developed to comply with safety tests due to be introduced by Euro NCAP in 2022, so it should be fitted to some new cars by then. It might become required on HGVs earlier than this, because they have more significant blindspots.
A similar system, called turn across path AEB is already fitted to some new cars, including the Toyota Yaris and Volkswagen ID.3. It is able to detect and avoid a pedestrian walking across a side road the car is turning into.
Help inside the car
Cameras focused on the driver detect when his or her driving is impaired and send a warning. If this is ignored, the system will prompt the car to take effective action, such as pulling over in a safe place or increasing the sensitivity of other active safety systems, such as lane-keeping assistance.
The introduction of advanced driver monitoring is part of a push to reduce accidents, 90% of which are caused by human error. It’s also envisaged that it could be used to ensure a safe handover between the car and driver when autonomous driving systems are introduced.
When can I have it? Driver attention monitoring is already common (in fact, it was first offered by Lexus way back in 2006), but it’s not yet at the level where it can pull the car over if you’re not in a fit state to drive. Volvo plans to take this step soon, though.
Voice-activated digital assistant
Voice control technology has long been in use, but it’s becoming a lot more sophisticated, understanding natural speech instead of requiring you to learn specific commands.
For example, you can ask the system to find an empty parking space at a specified location and provide sat-nav directions. Simple comments such as “I’m hungry” can initiate a restaurant search, and if it comes up with lots of places for Chinese, you can tell it you’d prefer Italian and it’ll refine the results.
When can I have it? A number of newer cars from major manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, Mercedes, Nissan and Toyota already offer digital assistants similar to or based on those from Amazon, Apple and Google.
3D displays and augmented reality
Information from sensors inside and outside the car are merged with data from the internet to track the car’s surroundings. They map a 360deg virtual space around the car, providing information about the road and other vehicles and road users.
Nissan’s Invisible-to-Visible system, for instance, will project useful information onto the car’s windows. Alternatively, if the car is driving itself, a virtual world can be projected onto the glass. The system can also connect to a friend via the internet and show him or her as a three-dimensional digital avatar to keep you company.
When can I have it? Mercedes started offering augmented reality sat-nav last year on the A-Class. As you approach a junction, the screen shows a live video of the road in front with directing arrows overlaid. Such features are set to progressively become more sophisticated and integrated in the next few years.
Roads of the future
It’s not only cars that will share information via the internet; road infrastructure will also provide updates on road conditions and potential hazards. Many firms are working on this tech, which will be helpful to human drivers and essential for autonomous vehicles.
Information from the Internet of Things is used to assess how quickly a car should be travelling to ensure a safe yet speedy journey. As the vehicle approaches a bend, for example, it’s fed data about the angle of the upcoming corner and road conditions, allowing it to calculate the optimum speed for the turn.
On the infrastructure side, intelligent junctions use radar and cameras to assess traffic volume and alert oncoming vehicles if there’s another turning up ahead or pedestrians trying to cross.
Smart street lights also provide information on traffic volume, which can be used to control traffic light sequencing to increase flow, in turn reducing emissions. They can warn vehicles of danger ahead and illuminate empty parking spaces to make them easier to find.
When will it arrive? Continental’s eHorizon system is already used by some commercial vehicles. Meanwhile, smart infrastructure has been on trial in various locations, including in the UK, for a few years now, but a fully developed 5G data network is needed before a wide-scale roll-out of the technology is possible.
Cars are already banned from some city centres to cut emissions, and there are many restrictions and fees for polluting cars. These are likely to increase, so alternative transport solutions are needed.
Google has been working on driverless car technology for more than a decade, and one of its sister firms, Waymo, is trialling a limited robotaxi service in the US using converted Chrysler Pacifica MPVs. These have minders behind the wheel in case of emergency.
More common are low-speed autonomous shuttles, which you hail using a smartphone app. An example is the six-seat Easymile EZ10; it uses seven radar sensors, four surround-view cameras and three laser scanners to create a 360deg image of its surroundings within a radius of 200 metres.
When can I use one? Low-speed autonomous shuttles have been trialled in some public spaces in the UK, with more tests planned. The Government has previously stated that it wants autonomous vehicles on public roads by 2021.
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