The Smart Car of the Future: Location Aware and Self-Driving

You know where you're driving -- but does your car?

In the near future, your car will become more than just a car. It will connect with the outside world, and even anticipate driving habits. And it'll know where it is, which buildings it's passing and which cars are near it on the road.

So wave hello to the robot car of the future -- it may just know you're saying hi, after all.

One of the most interesting examples of this is the BMW ConceptVision Connected Drive. The sportscar, which made its debut at the Geneva Auto Show this month, uses a unique color scheme to feed information to the driver: blue for entertainment choices, red for safety concerns.

The BMW ConceptVision provides a way to interact with the cars’ surroundings too. For example, if you’re driving through New Orleans and pass a café, you can find it’s current music playlist and add it to your own in-car entertainment system.

Thilo Koslowski, the vice president of automotive research at Gartner, called this kind of location-awareness the latest auto tech trend. The car senses where you are at all times, knows your music and movie preferences, and can interact with other cars on the roadway.

“Cars are becoming smarter and communicating intelligently with the outside world,” he told Over the next ten years, he said, cars will “crowd source” information from other drivers as they pass your vehicle, learning where the best restaurants are located and the best traffic routes. The car will become an information hub: ordering movie tickets for you and even making dinner reservations.

“Cars will become the ultimate mobile device,” he said. “And even more so because they truly are mobile. Making information more accessible to the driver has become a new automotive focus.”

Safety improvements
Koslowski said drivers want more information as they drive. Yet, an even greater impetus behind future car tech has to do with safety. Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have developed new technologies that can sense an imminent collision and hit the brakes automatically. The Volvo S60 can detect a passing pedestrian and flash a warning light before braking.

Paul Laurenza, an attorney at Dykema who studies automotive technology, said a new DOT estimate finds that 81% of vehicle collisions could be avoided using new collision avoidance technology. (The estimate is based on data when there is no impaired driver involved, however.)

This has prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to investigate new safety measures, such as rear-view back-up cameras, and make them mandatory in new cars.

Laurenza said NHTSA will decide by 2013 whether to regulate new vehicle-to-vehicle safety warning technologies for collision avoidance. These technologies may make their way into new cars by the end of this decade. Of course, some automakers, such as Audi and BMW, will sometimes introduce the new technologies long before they are mandated.

“We should continue on the path of having vehicles that use these sophisticated systems to assist the driver and, if necessary, correct for potential collisions where the driver is either distracted or inattentive,” said Laurenza, who insists the safety measures are not a replacement for inattentive drivers but an add-on to make them even more attentive to the roadway.

Self-driving cars
That said, one of the loftiest goals of automotive technology is to make cars drive themselves. Google recently developed a program using Toyota Priuses that let cars drive on California roadways with little driver input. The reason this autonomous driving makes sense, Koslowski said, is that a computer can react much faster than a human, communicating with other cars and the roadway itself.

One car company that is paving the way for autonomous driving is Volvo. Dr. Erik Coelingh is a technical lead for safety and based in Sweden. Coelingh developed a “platooning” technology where one lead car, driven by a human, feeds data back to other driverless cars in a train.

“If something unexpected happens on the road, such as construction or a deer in the road, the human driver will brake and send commands back to the other cars,” Coelingh said.

Koslowski said autonomous driving will help save on fuel economy because a computer can drive more efficiently. He said one interesting challenge will be to outfit cars with more wireless connections (maybe even one per passenger), more entertainment options, and more conveniences.

Still, Koslowski said the future car could also pose some new challenges in distracted driving. He said automakers should resist the temptation to add even more entertainment options and focus instead on helping the driver stay attuned to the road -- and not to text with other drivers.