Futurists predicted that we’d be “driving” flying automobiles by the millennium. It didn’t happen; we haven’t achieved Jetsons-like mobility yet, but 21st century automobile technology is racing to keep up with the rest of our tuned-in, always-connected world.
Leading the way are cars with the new Ford Sync system and GM’s updated OnStar system. Both provide many of the same communications and entertainment options that consumers have on home-based computers and mobile devices. If you’ve ever thought of your car as a place to be alone with your thoughts, you can keep it that way. But if you long to keep talking, emailing, texting and updating your social media status – even while driving – your time has come.
The second-generation Ford Sync, dubbed MyFord Touch, plants an 8-inch screen on the dashboard, with two 4-inch screens framing the speedometer behind the wheel. The screens can be controlled either by steering wheel buttons or voice commands, allowing drivers to control cabin entertainment and climate and personalize dashboard instrumentation and navigation. The Bluetooth-enhanced phone can access constantly updated directions, business listings, traffic info and all sorts of information that mobile device owners are used to. These are all logical extensions of earlier technology.
The newest developments will allow drivers to hear text messages and send out a limited range of voice-activated, pre-set responses. Drivers can set up an in-car Wi-Fi network using a USB modem. Ford is working with the University of Michigan to develop new applications (apps) for Sync and is providing access to their platform to third parties, in order to see what they can come up with.
OnStar, which has been offered as a safety feature on GM cars for 15 years, is ready to compete with the Ford Sync by offering audio Facebook updates, RSS feeds and voice-operated text messaging. Working through a Bluetooth-connected phone, OnStar’s Virtual Advisor will be able to “speak” incoming text messages, news feeds and Facebook status updates. Drivers’ audio status updates will be sent back to Facebook’s news feed.
Other cool stuff that will be available in the new OnStar includes a Bluetooth phonebook, better traffic and weather alerts and improved navigation. OnStar owners will be able to remotely activate all the available key fob functions – door locks, ignition, lights and horn – using their smartphones.
With all the new cockpit technology comes more concern for passenger safety. US Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, says that he thinks it will contribute further to the epidemic of distracted driving that began with cell phone use. He expressed his concerns at a recent conference on distracted driving.
Automakers say they are developing other technology to help make their cars’ unprecedented connectivity safe for drivers to use. Even with all the potential in-car distractions drivers can experience, traffic fatalities continue to decline annually, due largely to passenger safety features automakers have continued to develop for new cars, even through economically challenged times.
More safety offerings continue to emerge. For example, GM and other companies also are testing ways to project safety and navigation information onto windshields holographically, so attention won’t be diverted off the road.
GM also has launched the OnStar Developers Challenge to involve students in developing voice-activated vehicle technology solutions to reduce distracted driving. Multiple automakers offer Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) with safety features such as lane departure warning, forward collision warning and blind-spot detection.
Volvo’s City Safety automatically brakes in stop-and-go traffic to avoid rear-enders. Mercedes-Benz is experimenting with an under-car airbag to slow and stabilize a car in a crash. Several auto manufacturers are working on technology to detect and warn when a driver starts to doze.
Volkswagen is reportedly testing a computerized windshield sunscreen that tracks sun rays and compares them to a driver’s eye position to block the sun’s rays. It’s also working on a backseat navigation screen to help parents head off those pesky “Are we there yet?” questions.
These are just a few new-car technology developments. When it comes to total connectedness, total convenience and total safety in automobiles, it appears that the question is no longer “if,” but “when.” According to some reports, a flying car is within reach soon and may even be introduced next year. As the famous saying goes, we haven’t seen anything yet.