Perhaps the biggest revolution under way is enabling cars to talk to one another, like fish traveling in a school. This communication technology would make it possible for cars to move along both quickly and safely. Cars that already communicate with drivers to warn of potentially dangerous situations, using adaptive cruise control and blind-spot alerts, only involve one-way communication. The next step is vehicle-to-vehicle communication, where messages are sent wirelessly from one car to another, using dedicated short-range radios (similar to Wi-Fi but a different frequency). The DOT calls it IntelliDrive, and has invested $128 million in the technology thus far, and has another $49 million designated for the project.
Cars send signals back and forth, letting each other know of their position, speed and whether they’re braking. Shulman explains that your car would act as “a vigilant passenger,” warning the driver of potentially dangerous situations and even applying the brakes when necessary. If a car is about to turn quickly in front of you and you don’t see it, your car would detect it and respond accordingly. “If you don’t act quickly enough to stop, it can stop you,” says Scott Belcher, president and CEO of Intelligent Transportation Society of America in Washington.
When eyesight begins to diminish, one of the first aspects to erode is peripheral vision. General Motors is working on a transparent windshield display of what you should be seeing as you drive. Its most dramatic application would be in fog, when an infrared camera could detect unseen objects and outline them on your windshield—like a fighter pilot with a target on the shield of his helmet. Due in eight to 10 years, the technology could also highlight threats you may miss, like a bicyclist or pedestrian. “This is augmenting reality and enhancing information in the outside world,” says Thomas Seder, lab group manager for Human Machine Interface at General Motors Research and Development.
In about 10 years, you’ll be able to customize your dashboard. Imagine 20 square inches of glass where you drag and drop your favorite gadgets, colors and fonts where you like. MIT AgeLab’s Coughlin says you’ll be able to make the font settings larger, so the display is easier to read, and choose the color and lighting that make displays more visible. Different drivers will be able to hop in and switch the entire look with a fingertip.
Within five years, your car will take on the role of doctor, assessing your physical and mental health, and then provide necessary remedies. “We’ve all talked about the backseat driver,” says Coughlin. “The backseat driver will move forward and will be the car” itself.
The vehicle, he explains, will serve as a platform to detect how you’re feeling. If you’re stressed or distracted, for example, the car could intervene to improve your mood and make you more aware of the road. Over time, baseline data could be used to alert you when your behavior verges from the norm—something you might not even notice. A camera on the dashboard will track pupil movement to sense fatigue, emitting an aroma of, say, vanilla to perk you up. The car will also measure your pulse to diagnose your stress level. If it’s high, you may be in for an on-the-go seat massage.
It’ll take a clever combination of cameras, radios, radar, GPS and a host of software solutions before drivers can entirely hand over control of the car to automation. It’s clearly possible, though, as demonstrated—on a small scale—through the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, during which several automatic cars successfully navigated a mock city on an abandoned airbase.