Jun 3, 2008

10 car features we want by 2020

Hey, automobile industry, we need to talk. You've been making a lot of promises lately and, well, we're not really sure if we believe you anymore. How can you even ask why? Remember that whole "flying car" thing? Yeah, It's the new millennium and we're still getting our tires changed.
Hearts. Still. Broken.

Maybe it's time to give the industry another chance. General Motors, after all, is saying that we'll have driverless vehicles by 2015 and that sounds really neat. So we're not going to be greedy — 2020 gives the industry a little breathing room to make good, and it sounds like a swell time to kick-start the glorious future. Click Continue to see what to expect.

1. Cars that drive themselves
Larry Burns, GM's vice president for R&D, said of self-driving autos: "This is not science fiction." General Motors could have the technology in place by 2015 and have the cars on the road as early as 2018. The one large obstacle the company foresees is demand.

What would be the benefit? Less deaths on the road, for one, as a substantial amount of them are caused by driver recklessness. Also, a more even consumption of gas all around, less congestion, and the technology could act as a gateway to more advancements, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication that will allow cars to react to construction detours and reroute in the face of traffic delays.

2. Failing that, cars that park themselves
Last year, Lexus wowed automobile enthusiasts with a self-parking LS460 sedan. Still, the system wasn't entirely automated. It used a sonar sensor to detect an open parking spot, and then you could adjust the car's parking target area by way of a in-dash monitor. The car then guides itself into the spot, handling the steering, but relies on you to keep the car's speed down by using the brake as you follow on-screen cues. A cool system to be sure, but not quite 2020 cool — I don't want to touch the pedals or the wheel.

It's not so much my own car I want parked as other people's: I could do without my mangled fender after a botched parallel parking job by someone in a hurry, or that jerk at the mall who lazily rolls into more than one space.

3. Rotating tires for easier parking
It's an idea that is still on the cutting room floor for the most part: tires that rotate so that a car can move sideways into a parking spot. Parallel parking is still one of the trickiest maneuvers most people face, especially in the city, and being able to line up your vehicle and slide right in would save a lot of bumpers. It'd also allow the driver to slip out a little easier when stuck behind an accident or a stall.

4. Unintrusive heads-up displays
Keeping a drivers eyes closer to the road is key. Having the same information your dash provides projected around the edges of the driver's side of the windshield can be a great help, especially when it comes to controlling your speed. It's already being done in a few vehicles, but it should really become standard practice.

5. Improved anti-theft methods
If my car gets stolen, there's a good chance I want it back. Though there are some pretty radical ideas out there about protecting a vehicle, some of the more rational include GPS tracking and being able to remotely turn off the engine. Services such as OnStar, provided by General Motors, are already toying with remotely causing a vehicle to slow down so it can be stopped easier by law enforcement, a feature OnStar hopes to have running by 2009.

And, hey — with self driving cars on the way, how about one that can drive itself to the police station?

6. Get rid of those fossil fuels
Fossil fuels, as we use them in automobiles right now, are heavy pollutants. More than that, we're running out of them. The more we learn to use gas more efficiently, or to simply cut gas out of the equation entirely, the better. Better for us, and better for our environment.

With our current level of technology and a push by the automobile industry for hybrids, it seems only a matter of time before gas stations are a thing of the past. How about them fuel cells, for instance?

7. Finger vein scanners and improved vehicle control
We'd like to see technology that allows us to interact with everything in our vehicle — from our air conditioner to our MP3 players — as little more than an afterthought. Hitachi's finger vein scanners, for instance, represent such an alternate control method. Each finger has a system of veins as unique as a fingerprint, and Hitachi's scanning technology can read those patterns and map functions to them, allowing you to control your vehicle's systems without reaching over for the air conditioning knob or volume control.

If finger vein scanning is too complex for our 2020 target, we'd settle for more car peripherals with voice recognition. Or hey, how about a little bit of mind control?

8. More information for the driver
Knowing the speed of the car ahead and behind you, the quality of the road you're on, the existence of a crosswind and more would all help, even if only in a small way. The auto industry has slowly been ramping up how much the car assists the driver, from larger vehicles that have a sensor which beeps when you're approaching an obstacle when backing up, to vehicles equipped with screens to put eyes where the driver can't see, like Nissan's Around View Monitor.

9. Smarter cars that save us from ourselves
On the flipside of an informed driver is an informed automobile.

There's a lot that can be said for a friendly robotic assistant who has your back on a drive. The smarter your car is and the more it knows about you, the less chance there is of an accident. If the driver falls asleep, for instance, the car could come to a gentle stop, giving other vehicles time to avoid it and keeping the car from running into a tree. The car could also deny an intoxicated driver from getting on the road in the first place.

10. Cars that won't turn unless you use a blinker
There are a few basics we should all observe in a car, like proper safety (such as wearing a seatbelt), and proper signaling.

A few years ago, Dave Barry received a write-in that suggested if a blinker was left on for a lengthy amount of time, the car should turn in that direction. Rather than include a feature that will permanently remove all drivers above the age of 65, how about turning the idea around? What if a car forced you to signal, or could signal for you? This ties back into an informed driver and car — just like holding your hand up to signal when you're on a bike, signaling to other drivers what you plan to do allows them to react accordingly.

11. Flying cars
Oh my, how did this get here? Sure, I don't trust the quality of driving I see out on the roads every day to translate into a safe aerial environment. Yet, if all of the above ever gets taken care of, why can't we have cars that drive themselves — and fly?

Is there anything you'd like your car to do for you by 2020? Sound off in the comments below.

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