Movies have given us countless glimpses of the so-called “car of the future”. Knight Rider brought us KITT, Will Smith was saved by a driverless Audi in I, Robot, and Back to the Future II promised us 2015 was the year of the time-travelling flying car.
Looking back, Doc Brown was a little optimistic in his estimations, but geeks here in the real world have created numerous gadgets that will revolutionise your driving experience in the near future. Fire up your flux capacitor, stoke your plutonium-filled nuclear reactor and ride with us as we look at just a few.
In Your Face
In the future, even the humble windscreen will be unrecognisable due to the use of next generation head-up display (HUD) systems. In their current incarnation, these systems project basic information such as speed and navigation directly onto the windscreen in the driver's line of sight. By 2015, they'll project far more complex images, augmenting reality as you drive.
GM's research and development department has recently unveiled a head-up display system that uses infra-red cameras to monitor the road ahead, and an ultra-violet laser to project images onto your windscreen, highlighting potential dangers you may have missed due to poor visibility. The system can paint virtual lane markings on the glass in front of you, highlight vehicles and pedestrians, or even visually tag your destination so you don't go hurtling past it.
Your car's instruments will get a make-over, too. Whereas today's speedometers and petrol gauges are usually of the solid state variety – boring old needles spinning across a numbered piece of plastic - future cars will have fully reconfigurable digital displays. These will take the form of either TFT, OLED or even rear-projection screens, and will revolutionise how information is shown. It doesn't matter if you want a 3D rev counter, a speedo represented by an ever-increasing number of cartoon cats, or you want your own animated avatar staring back at you, its animated smile widening with every additional mile per hour driven - these screens can do it all.
Today, cars tend not to be very aware of the outside world. By 2015, however, the best cars will be fully networked and will communicate constantly with each other, as well as surrounding traffic infrastructure. Reassuringly, the European Union has already allocated 30MHz of spectrum in the 5.9GHz band to 801.11p - a cousin of 802.11n Wi-Fi - designed specifically for car-to-x (car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure) communications.
The applications of networked cars are wide ranging and numerous. At its simplest level, roadside infrastructure such as traffic lights or road signs could wirelessly relay messages about road closures and suggest alternate routes, or warn about slippery road conditions. In a more advanced example, a car that breaks down on a dangerous blind bend could send out a warning to oncoming cars telling them exactly what's happened and suggest an appropriate course of action. That message could then be disseminated through traffic, car by car until it reaches the emergency services.
Technology firms are working hard, as we speak, to equip cars with internet connectivity and by 2015, web-ready cars will be commonplace. Audi and Qualcomm have already demonstrated a version of the Audi A8 fitted with a UMTS modem that, in conjunction with a localised 802.11n wireless network, turns the car into a Wi-Fi hotspot. You can pretty much kiss goodbye to the "are we there yet?" phenomenon, as the system will allow occupants to connect to the Internet using wireless devices such as a laptop, iPad etc.
Internet-enabled cars have uses beyond simply letting you update Twitter whilst on the move. These devices will be linked to a variety of car systems such as the satnav to download new mapping data whilst on the move. It could also be linked to the entertainment system, downloading music or video files on the fly, and could potentially be applied to a car-to-car dating service, where drivers could message each, arranging coffee dates whilst stuck in traffic jams.
It's out of your hands
In the future, you won't drive cars. They'll drive you. Many cars, such as the Toyota Prius, have an automatic parallel parking feature, which can autonomously reverse you into a parking space without you having to touch the steering wheel. Many cars also have the option of adaptive cruise control, which uses radar or laser sensors plus drive-by-wire technology to maintain your chosen speed, slowing and even stopping your car automatically if it encounters dawdling traffic up ahead.
By 2015, cars will take things a step further and steer themselves. In 2007, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, staged a driverless “Urban Challenge”, where autonomous vehicles attempted to complete a 60-mile-long private course - obeying all traffic regulations and negotiating other traffic and obstacles - in under 6 hours. In 2009, Sanford University's autonomous Audi TT, nicknamed Shelley, completed the deadly, 20Km, 156-turn Pikes Peak Hill Climb without a driver - avoiding sheer drops of 1415 metres off the side. By 2015, this feature will be ready for the mainstream and you, dear reader, will be redundant.
The future, then, looks like an exciting place for motorists. Sure, we may not see the flying cars Robert Zemeckis predicted, but the technologies we've looked at here are just as exciting and more importantly - they're very real. Whether you're a geek or a petrolhead, or a combination of both, you can be assured that 2015 will be a very exciting place to be.
If you enjoyed this article, then head over to our Future Week homepage where you'll find a collection of features on what gadgets will be like in the year 2015.