Industry Market Trends

10 Hottest Car Technologies

Oct 08, 2003

Many new car innovations have already arrived or are fast approaching, promising to bring in a new automotive age. Here are the technologies that are set to debut in the coming decade:

When it comes to developing amazing automotive technologies, the industry is on over-drive. Electronics are set to supplant most mechanical systems, and even midrange car models are about to come loaded with sensors, cameras, computer screens and Wi-Fi hookups. In short, a new automotive era is fast approaching. Says 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." Here's what to expect within the next decade:

Passive no more. Active safety systems will overtake passive protection, such as airbags. These advanced systems will utilize radar and cameras to detect potential dangers. "We've put airbags just about every place you can," says John Weiner, a U.S. product-planning manager at Toyota. "Within the next five years, the car will use algorithms to anticipate hazards and intervene or warn the driver."

Who needs car keys? The credit-card-like systems already found in some Cadillacs, Infinitis and BMWs will make their way to all new cars, banishing keys to obsolescence. In fact, keyless entry is slated to appear on some 40 different cars over the next three years, says Michael Gautier, North American director of corporate technology for Siemens VDO Automotive, the auto components and systems unit of the German electronics heavyweight Siemens.

Video age. Every new car will feature a computer-monitor-like screen built into the dashboard. Using a navigation system that relies on a global positioning satellite and on-board DVDs, the video screen will display directions, maps and information on hotels, hospitals and restaurants. Additionally, the screen "will show you certain features within the car and connect to other devices such as PDAs and cell phones," says Thilo Koslowski, California-based lead vice-president in the automotive group for business advisory firm Gartner G2.

Hooked up. Nearly every car will have a Wi-Fi connection that automatically conveys information such as the weather, news and sports scores. "We're going to see hot spots in places like gas stations and restaurants," forecasts Peter Wengert, a marketing manager for automotive products at Microsoft, which is promoting Windows Automotive as a software standard for managing such new car communications capabilities.

Information, please. A growing number of cars will be able to collect information that can be exchanged with dealers, manufacturers and even other vehicles. For example, dealers or manufacturers may be able to perform remote diagnostics to assist individuals whose vehicles break down on the road.

Many more eyes. Within 15 years, the standard vehicle will be loaded with 10 to 15 cameras to help parents watch their kids and to make it easier for drivers to manage blind spots, Siemens' Gautier says. Many vehicles will come equipped with cameras in their front bumper so drivers can "look" around corners as they turn out of driveways or alleys.

Going 40. Cars using 40-volt electrical systems will become the norm because current 12-volt systems can't readily support all the new electronic gadgets.

Do this, do that. Voice command systems, which are already offered in some BMWs, Jaguars and Lexuses, will become much more widely available to assist drivers in managing the growing number of functions in their cars.

Pedals become electronic. Also speeding into widespread production are brake-by-wire and accelerate-by-wire systems, in which stepping on the pedal transmits an electronic signal instead of triggering a physical link to the brakes or engine. All Mercedes models have featured electronic brake pedals since 1994, and the Chevy Corvette and all of the latest Audis already employ accelerate-by-wire. Electronic switches—now found in many luxury cars—will supplant emergency brake handles. And steering-by-wire may come next.

Programmable options abound. More and more features in a car will become 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." While that may still be years away, the new Audi A8 already lets each driver adjust road clearance to modify the car's "ride." By 2010, most new cars will feature a reconfigurable speedometer and other displays in which drivers can adjust the type size, predicts Ron Miller, project leader for Intelligent Vehicle Technologies at Ford.

While many new car technologies are already here or fast approaching, there's one innovation that still remains in the distant future—self-driving cars. "Fully automated driving is one of those things that since the 1940s has always been 15 years in the future," says Gerdes from Stanford. "We never seem to get there." Fortunately, there are many other impressive innovations that are revving up—or are already starting—to transform the driving experience.

21st Century Cars Hit the Road
Thane Peterson
Business Week, Sept. 4, 2003