By Jim Kerr

Old magazines such as Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics always had articles about “Cars of the Future.” Vehicles were envisioned that would drive themselves, be operated by speech, and capable of being converted into an airplane or perhaps hovering above the roadway. While hovering cars are still only a dream and cars that convert to airplanes may be available – but still not practical – much of what those automotive writers envisioned has come true. Ford is still looking into the future, but some of their future technology isn’t that far away. In fact, some of it is available right now in U.S. vehicles. Unfortunately, it isn’t all available in Canada (what a pity), but look for it in the future.

Let’s start with vehicles that drive themselves. We are not quite ready to relinquish control just yet, but Google has already put cars on the road that have logged thousands of kilometres while driving themselves (though a “driver” is still behind the wheel) as they map North American streets and roads. Lexus, and now Ford, have cars that will park themselves with a little driver’s assistance, and Volvo has cars that will automatically brake themselves to a stop if there is an obstacle in the way.

The next generation of cars will take it much further. Ford recently showcased their Intelligent Vehicles concept with Vehicle to Vehicle communications technology. While still in the engineering stages, the system is already in testing and could hit the roads as early as 2013. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is already talking about setting standards for new vehicle communication protocols that will enable this technology.

How does it work? It starts with a combination of WiFi technology and Global Positioning Sensing. Both these existing technologies are married in the vehicle to identify its location in real time and then transmit this over the WiFi system out to other vehicles. Vehicles can then interact with each other and warn the driver of potential hazards. Let me give you some practical examples: perhaps you want to change lanes but a vehicle is rapidly approaching in your blind spot. Blind spot warning systems may be able to warn you, but a rapidly overtaking vehicle is hard to detect. The WiFi system from the overtaking vehicle, however, would notify your vehicle of its position and your vehicle could warn you, all without the costly radar or camera sensors required for current blind spot systems.

Another example could be if a vehicle two or three cars ahead of you in traffic started braking rapidly but you couldn’t see it because the large truck directly in front of you blocks your vision. The WiFi communication system would enable your vehicle to warn you of the problem ahead so you could start braking even before the driver of the truck ahead of you does.

A dramatic example of vehicle-to-vehicle safety was a simulation of a vehicle running a red light as we entered a blind right-angle intersection. What would normally be a serious collision was averted because our vehicle received a warning of a rapidly-approaching vehicle and we were able to brake even though we couldn’t see the other vehicle until the last second.

NHTSA estimates that vehicle-to-vehicle safety could help in 81 per cent of all police-reported vehicle accidents, excluding those caused by impaired drivers.

Interacting with our vehicles will take place in other ways. The future may see sensors in the seat that monitor your heart rate. Depending on your stress levels, the car will adapt to reduce stress by sending incoming phone calls directly to voice mail, or enabling vehicle warnings earlier so we have more time to react.

Imagine apps on your smart phone being controlled by the car’s voice recognition system. This is a reality in the U.S. already, where drivers can select web-based radio from cell phone apps without taking their eyes off the road. In the future, allergy alert apps could automatically change climate control settings or recommend a different drive route.

While we don’t have the technology to hover (yet), other technologies that were only dreams a few years ago are now reality and have practical applications. Perhaps we may still only imagine what the future will hold, but that future is quickly becoming a reality.

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