The car of the future: the tech that's coming next
10th May 2013 | 12:01
What will they invent next?
Car companies have been steadily adding new features to make vehicles safer, more reliable, more environmentally friendly and more technologically sophisticated.
Soon, your Audi will be able to find a parking spot and park itself while you walk into work. Mercedes has figured out how to analyse the roadway as you drive and can adjust suspension on the fly. But this is just the beginning.
In exclusive interviews about the far-future cars, several major automobile manufacturers spoke to us about concepts for the future car. Short of the flying car, these predictions reveal astounding tech advancements.
Let's see what these vehicle makers had to say about their plans for our cars.
GM: Intent engines in cars will predict our preferences
There's another 'engine' that will come to play in the future vehicle, according to General Motors. An 'intent engine' is a super-powerful artificial intelligence that can analyse past actions, understand current conditions and scan for available data to predict behaviour.
"The car will infer your intentions and offer some options for you and act on your behalf," explains Nick Pudar, the vice president of planning and business development at GM OnStar.
Pudar gave some examples of how this could work. For someone driving across the country, the car will know where fuelling stations are located and examine your route. As you drive, the car will predict when you should refuel - say, before you leave a major city, where fuel is cheaper. "The car will prompt you with data you were not even thinking about," he says.
Another example is that electric cars of today such as the Chevy Volt are already connected to the internet and can be controlled using a mobile app. You can decide to start recharging when you know costs are lower.
In the future, as more homes are connected to smart grids, an intent engine will examine usage for you and charge at the best rates. But this will advance even further: the car could let the power utility know when you have been driving more, or if your commute changes (based on driving patterns).
One of the most interesting advancements is that the future car will remind you about intent. "I could have an app on my phone where I can speak to it and say remind me at some point in the future that I am by a place that sells charcoal," he says. Then, an alert would pop up later.
Or, a button in the dash could enable you to create a reminder about a local eatery. Next time you are driving in the area, the alert would suggest eating there based on your previous intent.
Chrysler: Computer modelling to make trucks lighter
One of the greatest challenges in vehicle design is making the car lighter but also durable enough to withstand abuse over time - not to mention accidents. Interestingly, in the same way an Apple MacBook is now engineered as one unibody piece, cars and trucks of the future will be engineered as one piece - in fact, the entire production process will be unified.
Mike Cairns, the vehicle line executive for trucks at Chrysler, told TechRadar that computer modelling and "lightweighting" will be a key innovation in the future.
"Today, lightweighting benefits fuel economy and performance," he says. "If we reduce the weight of the chassis, we can reduce the weight of the engine. As you start lightweighting, it opens up opportunities to make things lighter on the rest of the vehicle."
Unibody designs will use one single mould, he says, made out of a new form of reinforced plastic that has not been been invented yet. Imagine the exhaust system of today: disparate parts designed separately from the vehicle in a computer model. In the future, the exhaust, engine, electrical components and even the dash will be designed as one component.
"As the industry moves more to aluminium there are newer materials with better formability and stiffness," he says. "New alloys will maximise strength and lower weight. We have a Jeep concept with meshed-steel that cuts the weight in half but still has the same structural rigidity.
"There are more and more electronics, but 50% of it is all communication wires with one electric module communicating with a bus. We currently use copper, but most of that could be replaced with fibre optics - the only thing stopping us is cost."
Cairns says the future truck could reduce the 680kg (1,499lbs) of copper used for electrical connections. One possible innovation is using wireless transmissions to send signals to different parts of the vehicle. The computer modelling required will even go beyond just the parts and design of the future vehicle.
Today, Chrysler already uses computer modelling to aid in truck assembly - for example, knowing which parts will be used and where they are located. In the future, computer models could go even further - knowing how much all parts weigh, who is installing them, how far they have to be moved and how they all fit together.
Toyota: Hydrogen-powered cars
There's a raging debate over the future of the electric car. Some view a battery-powered engine as the safest and most efficient option. Others wonder about the cost to make the power, whether the technology is safe and how much it costs to transport.
Jim Pisz, the corporate manager for North American business strategy at Toyota, told TechRadar that the future car will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells instead.
"By the end of 2020, hydrogen gas-powered fuel cells will challenge traditional battery electric technology," says Pisz. "Many car makers have been developing this technology for the past decade or so. Our fuel cell cars are safe, robust, give a range of over 300 miles and refuel in about five minutes. And, they're becoming affordable."
The great unknown, of course, is how the infrastructure will develop. Today, there are petrol fuelling stations across the globe. And EV chargers are slowly popping up in major cities.
"The challenge for both battery and fuel cell electric cars is infrastructure," he says. "It's very easy to see how some infrastructure for battery electric cars is affordable on a limited basis. However, as ownership increases, the amount of money necessary for market sustaining infrastructure is monumental.
"With fuel cell electric vehicles, it's just the other way around. The initial infrastructure is prohibitively expensive, but future additions are quite inexpensive."
Ford: Customising the car dashboard
What if the future car could respond to your style and interests, adjusting the dash interface and even changing material composition to suit your needs?
TJ Giuli, the research lab leader at Ford Motor Company, told us that the future car might include hardware modules that a driver could add or adjust to suit their preferences, and the car would then adapt to make those modules work. In fact, the OpenXC hardware API is already paving the way for just such a trend in the future.
"I'd like to see the actual physical interface becoming much more malleable and reconfigurable," he says. "OpenXC could enable the car to have pluggable modules or ways of fundamentally redesigning the car in such a way that you expect the parts to be interchangeable."
One example of this is that if a future car uses a form of multi-touch gestures, and then the industry advances with a new form of touch control, a driver could add that new module. Or, if a driver doesn't like the way the steering wheel buttons are arranged, a new module could be used.
Ford is also working on the data architecture to make this possible, which involves routing the power and working out which data cables might be required. The idea is to make future cars more customisable so that drivers can retain a consistent UI look.
"It speaks to a need to carry over experiences they enjoy from other parts of their life," says Giuli. "If you like the iPhone or Mac, you might like to have a similar experience when you get into the car. If we are talking about cars that are human-controlled, we will still design systems that are not distracting - there will be an automotive flavour to a system like that. But there could be a wholesale consumer OS replacement that runs in some part of the car."
Another way the car could adapt is by changing the interface in the dash to suit the current driving conditions. For example, on a lonely stretch of road, the interface could dim for safer driving with fewer distractions. "In 20 or 30 years, there could be adaptable materials," says Giuli. "In theory, you could make a system that is very easy to remove or physically modify but visually would look coherent."
Could that involve nanobots that work behind the scenes to adjust the hardware materials? Giuli said anything is possible. "It could be really cool," he says.