The car of the future. It won't just get you where you want to go. It will be a rolling information center.
"People are turning their cars into extensions of their homes and offices," said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
"Technology for the further computerization of the vehicle, from the standpoint of safety and telecommunications, will grow in geometric proportions throughout the auto industry," said J. David Power, president of J.D. Power and Associates Inc., a global market research firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif. "People want those things."
What do they mean? Here's a guided tour of the gizmos they expect to be available--at a price--in the next several years:
Hands-free telephony--including voice-activated dialing--that's capable of sending and receiving e-mail and faxes and that will also allow motorists to teleconference in the midst of a traffic jam. Videoconferencing won't be far behind. And night vision, once reserved for nocturnal warfare, is emerging as a visual safety tool that could prevent highway tragedies.
Map pockets in car seats could disappear, usurped by satellite-guided navigation systems that can lead motorists from one place to another via graphic data on a console-mounted video display screen. Or a driver could call up a kind of traffic concierge service and get personal directions.
More cars will be equipped with sonar and will beep or send visual warnings of impending collision, as some do now when a motorist is in danger of backing into a wall, another car--or an unseen child.
Sleep monitors could become standard equipment. They are electronically controlled devices designed to detect erratic driver behavior, such as jerky steering or the erroneous entry into a curve, that might stem from driver drowsiness. Detection triggers an audio alert designed to wake the driver and avoid a crash.
Even traditional, lead-acid auto batteries will be "smart." Sears, Roebuck and Co., for example, is introducing its new DieHard Security battery, which can be programmed to "die" if a thief attempts to circumvent the car's ignition system.
Cars will use more plastic, aluminum and specialized steels to save weight and fuel and enhance vehicle recyclability. General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG, BMW AG, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. all believe that their 21st-century cars will be 90 percent recyclable, helping to slow the growth of automotive plastic, metal and rubber heaps now blighting the national landscape. Ford already is including recycled plastic, carpet--and denim jeans--in materials needed to build its 2000-model Focus sedans, hatchbacks and wagons.
The auto industry will remain the single largest consumer of microchips and electronic sensors, employing them in a variety of ways, including automatic seat adjustment, air-bag deployment, engine management, and emissions and traction control, just to name a few.
In the entertainment realm, new-century cars will offer far more than today's top-of-the-line sound systems, which include compact disc and cassette players, a radio and four stereo speakers. Expect subscriber radio stations that broadcast only the music or subject matter you want to hear, commercial-free. GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler either have signed contracts or are pursuing agreements with providers of subscriber radio services.
Likewise, all three companies, and many of their rivals, have signed contracts with providers of dedicated emergency communications and concierge services. They include GM's OnStar, Ford's Rescu and DaimlerChrysler's Tele Aid.
All of these services operate on a combination of cellular and satellite communications. They are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Costs vary, but they usually include about $700 to $1,000 for an installation fee and about $250 to $400 annually for a user fee, depending on the level of service desired.
Through the use of satellites, the services can keep tabs on the whereabouts of subscriber vehicles at all times. Any crash triggering deployment of an air bag brings an automatic response, including immediate notification to local police and emergency aid officials to send help to the crash site.
The communications services also provide map aid, but in this regard they differ from the pure satellite communications systems that display graphic information on a video screen. With OnStar for example, the subscriber pushes an overhead button that establishes a communication link with the OnStar staff. With both hands back on the steering wheel, the subscriber can ask for and receive voice route information.
Concierge help also is available. Theater, restaurant and hotel reservations, for example, can be made directly through OnStar or Tele Aid. And then there is what some consumers consider the ultimate help--the ability of the emergency communications services to open a subscriber car or truck via satellite signal, if the subscriber locks the key inside of the vehicle.
What kind of rules will flow from motorists' increased desire to stay in touch? The need to speed certainly triggered numerous local, state and federal regulations designed to curb dangerous driver behavior.
Currently, there are no federal regulations and few state or local laws specifically restricting the use, or setting the conditions for use of telecommunications equipment in cars or trucks. The technology is too new, and more is still coming, raising many unanswered questions about the potential effects on highway safety.
Most state and local governments have rules requiring motorists to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel while their vehicles are in motion, and they have catchall laws to help enforce those basic rules.
Driver inattention is one of the most common violations leading to traffic tickets and crashes, according to lawyer David Brown, author of the book "Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win," published by Nolo Press.
Accordingly, television and movie video screens (as opposed to console-mounted quick-information screens), are being installed behind the driver's seat, in the rear passenger quarters, often equipped with earphones.
Also, the console-mounted screens display on-screen warnings that the motorist's first responsibility is to drive safely, even if that means parking the car to send and retrieve information.
Cole and Power both estimate that one other fact will protect many drivers from information overload: the cost of all this technology. At least during the next decade, they predict, high-end communications systems will be limited to about 30 percent of the nation's car buyers--"the wealthiest segment," Cole said.
Improved crash-safety technology, though, could spread more quickly, the two men said, because that is something that consumers now see as a value. Most of these advances will be invisible to consumers, though, unless they have the unhappy opportunity to crash--or nearly crash--their cars.
Sonar-operated anti-collision devices will come into vogue. In fact, they've already begun appearing on models such as the Ford Windstar minivan and Cadillac DeVille. Forward sonar signals measure proximity to vehicles ahead. Rear sonar signals detect proximity to objects behind the vehicle. When the sonar-equipped vehicle gets too close to the "strike object"--say, within four feet--a tonal signal sounds a warning. As in the case of the new DeVille, a light signal might also flash. The sonar devices can cost $500 to more than $1,000, depending on the type and quantity installed.
Sensor-triggered sound also is being considered as a device for curbing another road scourge--drowsy driving.
According to a 1996 NHTSA report, the latest available, drowsy driving annually results in 56,000 vehicle crashes on U.S. highways. Those crashes include nearly 1,600 fatalities and 40,000 "nonfatal injuries," according to NHTSA.
The agency has been working with the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research to come up with measures to combat drowsy driving and some of its proposals are not the least bit technological. The group, for example, urges motorists to get more sleep before getting behind the wheel. It suggests drivers safely park and sleep if they become tired. Also, the group advocates greater use of highway rumble strips, designed to wake up sleepy drivers the moment the wheels of their vehicles bump over the surface.
Automakers are experimenting with another potential anti-sleep device--driver attention monitors. Generally, they would work this way: Sensors would determine if a driver is showing a pattern of errant steering inputs, such as jerky movements of the steering wheel, or failing to steer properly into curves. The sensors would send the information to a central processing unit, which will process the data within milliseconds and trigger a sound alarm within the car.
Auto industry analysts expect this wake-up technology, or some other version of it, to become available within the next decade.
Indeed, the groundwork for such a system already has been laid. Consider the computerized anti-yaw control, traction control, and other directional and movement control systems already in place on many mid-priced and luxury cars. Their basic purpose is to counteract unintentional, errant driver behavior--within the bounds of the laws of physics.
With those devices, sensors and computers work to keep the car on the road when a motorists moves into a curve too quickly, or too sharply twists the steering wheel, or forgets to slow down on slippery roads. They can add $1,000 or more to a car's sticker. But that is a lot cheaper than a trip to the auto body shop, the hospital or the grave.
Cole said he expects so many new devices to be unveiled that it's safe to say the auto industry is "at the edge of a revolution."
"We're moving out of the period of gradualism in the auto industry," Cole said. "We've been in that period for the last 40 years, an improvement here, a fix there. But now we're at the edge of a revolution. We have the potential for big steps, major steps."
But despite all of that whiz-bang stuff, one thing is unlikely to change much.
Engines. The analysts say the auto industry will stay in the ICE Age long into the next century. That's ICE, as in internal combustion engine, the basic automotive power plant that has been around since 1886, when what is regarded as the world's first automobile was put on the road in Germany.
The first American cars showed up a decade later, also equipped with internal combustion engines.
Those engines use fossil fuels, primarily gasoline or diesel. They mix that fuel with air, compress and explode the mixture to produce power, and throw the waste gases into the atmosphere. They cause air pollution, though not as much as they did two decades ago. They consume natural resources, and they are the targets of environmental agencies worldwide.
Yet, despite their many drawbacks, gasoline engines are likely to dominate the automotive stage for the next several decades. "I see no changes that will end the reign of gasoline any time soon, especially not in this country," Power said. "Gasoline is cheap in the United States, relative to the rest of the world. Battery-powered cars still have too many drawbacks that American consumers won't accept. Hydrogen-fuel-cell cars [which turn hydrogen into electricity to produce power], probably won't be introduced until 2010," six years later than automakers say they can now get fuel cells to market.
But there will be near-term, niche market availability of what some prognosticators call "bridge cars"--hybrid gasoline-and-electric-powered models such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which go on sale in the United States next year.
Bridge cars are seen as bridging the gap between internal combustion engines and the alternatively powered cars and trucks of the future. They get substantially higher mileage than ICE cars--more than 70 miles per gallon for both the Insight and the Prius, compared with an average 28 mpg for today's gasoline-powered cars. They meet California air-quality standards, which are the toughest in the nation.
But the hybrids, at the moment, are small and expensive, though Toyota and Honda say they will bring their models to market within the $20,000 range. Both companies concede that they will be subsidizing that introductory price in America, just as Toyota now is subsidizing Japan sales of its Prius models--to the tune of about $17,000 a car, according to industry sources.
Thus, initially, both companies will start with small volumes of hybrids in the United States--about 4,000 sales annually for the Honda Insight and a comparable number of annual sales for the Toyota Prius.
"It's a matter of economics and what consumers want," Cole said.
At the moment, with gasoline prices flat and wallets fat, more American consumers are willing to pay for in-vehicle videos than they are to pay for a system that uses alternative fuel that costs more than gasoline.
"Consumers don't want to compromise a whole lot," Cole added. "And nothing will succeed in the market that doesn't fit into their economic equation."
Electronics, already 20 percent of the average new car's value, will play an even bigger role in the 21st century. Cars and trucks essentially will become motorized computers and rolling information systems. Sensors will be used to help avoid frontal and rear-end collisions. Gulf War technology, such as night vision, will be used to detect objects beyond the headlights. Here are some real-world examples:
2000 Cadillac Deville DTS
With the introduction of its 2000 Cadillac DeVille model, General Motors Corp. became the first automaker to commercially offer night vision. The infrared technology detects "heat signatures," allowing the motorist to see beyond the headlights. Hot objects, such as animals, appear white. Cooler objects are gray, or darker.
2000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Console-mounted, liquid-crystal-display screen in the 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500. The screen displays specific destination directions given via a Global Positioning Satellite navigation system. Audio directions -- "Turn left," or "Right turn at next corner" -- can accompany the video display. Such screens can provide other visual information, such as e-mail, or notes on engine function.
2000 Ford Focus
Built to be recycled. Uses components made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles, carpet -- and denim jeans.