Future Innovations

We've looked into our automotive crystal ball and examined industry trends and news reports to come up with a few innovations we predict will be available in cars sometime in the next 10 years.

Around the Corner (here now, or within 2 years)
A fingerprint scanner could unlock the car door and start the engine.

A fingerprint scanner could unlock the car door and start the engine.

Keyless Entry and Ignition
Time frame: One year
What: A number of cars already offer keyless entry and ignition, but their use isn't widespread. Combine that with biotechnology access (like the fingerprint scanners at grocery stores and on some laptop computers) and the key chain is on the road to obsolescence.
What we do now: Fumble with a handful of keys and hope we don't drop the groceries.

Adaptive brake lights could warn drivers when the vehicle ahead stops suddenly.

Adaptive brake lights could warn drivers when the vehicle ahead stops suddenly.

Adaptive Brake Lights
Time frame: Two years
What: Brake lights that flash or get brighter or larger depending on how hard the brake pedal is depressed. This will tell the driver behind you how quickly you are stopping. Mercedes-Benz is currently experimenting with adaptive brake lights on a very limited number of U.S. models, but safety regulations prohibit wide implementation.
What we do now: Make an educated guess how quickly we need to stop, resulting in occasional rear-end collisions.

A computer center would manage everything from phones to navigation.

A computer center would manage everything from phones to navigation.

Computer Center
Time frame: Two years
What: A master in-dash computer that can manage navigation, phones, email, CDs, a PDA and every other new techno-gadget we come up with. Some Chrysler models are slated to have a system called MyGig with Bluetooth capability and a built-in hard drive that can rip CDs like your home computer.
What we do now: Fiddle with the in-dash navigation system while texting the office from our cell phone — hey, get your eyes back on the road!

Collision Mitigation Systems
Time frame: Two years
What: Already available on the Acura RL, a collision mitigation system prepares the car for an accident when one is deemed unavoidable. Brakes are applied and seat belts are tightened to prevent injury.
What we do now: Cringe and wait for the collision.

Depiction of a data recorder located under a car's hood.

Depiction of a data recorder located under a car's hood.

Automotive Black Box
Time frame: Two years
What: Airplanes have the ability to record trip details, so why not cars? An automotive black box could be invaluable in an accident, keep tabs on a new driver, help frequent speeders monitor their miles-per-hour — or it could be a big invasion of privacy. Reports indicate that two-thirds of the models built by General Motors and Ford already have data recorders, but accessing the information isn't easy.
What we do now: Act shocked when we get pulled over for going 10 miles over the speed limit because we never ever (ever!) speed.

Economy Mode
Time frame: Two years
What: If drivers can't change their driving behavior to increase gas mileage, cars may do it for them. In economy mode, a car turns off non-essential systems, turns down the A/C and even engages cruise control to conserve fuel. The 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid features an economy mode that limits A/C use, and several models (such as the Honda Odyssey) can deactivate cylinders depending on driver demand.
What we do now: Continue to debate whether we get better gas mileage by rolling down the windows or turning on the A/C when we're on the highway.

Down the Road (coming in 3-5 years)

Lane Changer Warning
Time frame: Three years
What: A system that would monitor traffic in adjacent lanes to let the driver know when it's safe to change lanes. The 2007 Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 already offer similar technology on a limited basis.
What we do now: Take our eyes off the road to check all the mirrors and our blind spot. Check the mirrors again. Double-check our blind spot. Dang, still missed that Mini!

Camless Engines
Time frame: Three years
What: Like the human body, engines demand airflow based on workload. A complex array of tubes, valves and camshafts facilitates this process, but it has nowhere near the flexibility of our lungs. Camless technology bridges the gap, better controlling the amount of air that's drawn into the engine. The result: More power, less pollution and better mileage. The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class will likely be one of the first cars to have this gas-saving technology.
What we do now: Wonder why our gutless four-bangers can only manage 26 mpg.

Self-repairing paint could fix minor scratches over time.

Self-repairing paint could fix minor scratches over time.

Self-Repairing, Self-Cleaning Paint
Time frame: Three years
What: Paint that can better resist and repair minor scratches and withstand marks from things like greasy fingers and tree sap. Nissan has already developed a topcoat made from an elastic resin that prevents some scratches — unfortunately it lasts about three years.
What we do now: Cross our fingers the guy parked next to us doesn't scratch our doors.

A navigation screen with real-time traffic information.

A navigation screen with real-time traffic information.

Navigation Systems With Real-Time Traffic Information
Time frame: Three years
What: All cars with navigation systems would be able to integrate real-time traffic data in order to alert drivers to road construction issues or traffic snarls while providing alternate routes. Similar systems are already available on handheld devices and in some luxury cars, like the Acura RL and Cadillac CTS.
What we do now: Arrive to work 30 minutes late because we forgot to check the traffic report before we left home.

Self-Parking Cars
Time frame: Four years
What: A system that parks a car with minimal or no help from the driver. Toyota introduced a system in Japan in which the driver keeps his foot on the brake while the car parallel parks itself. BMW recently created a version the driver can operate from outside the car to squeeze into those tight garage spots.
What we do now: Inadvertently play bumper cars when trying to fit into small spots.

Illustration of electric window tinting on a panoramic roof.

Illustration of electric window tinting on a panoramic roof.

Electric Window Tinting
Time frame: Five years
What: Electric window tinting could take windows or a moonroof from clear to tinted to even opaque with the push of a button. Maybach already offers a panoramic glass roof that can be switched from opaque to transparent, but not many of us can afford a Maybach.
What we do now: Wear sunglasses and wrestle with the sun visor.

Cool Stuff That's Been Talked About
(but who knows if we'll see it)

Advanced Flexible Fuel Systems
What: With fuel prices and technology in flux, this prediction is more general. In addition to widely available hydrogen-powered cars and clean diesel cars, we envision a car that could run on all types of fuel interchangeably. You could have one car that could run on gas, diesel, hydrogen, E85 and electric power. Your mileage would increase and you could use whatever fuel was cheapest — or available. Research into hydrogen fuel cells has been in the works for years, and we already have cars that can run on E85 and gas, as well as hybrids that can run on gas and battery power. Now we just need to figure out how to combine all the technologies into one car.
What we do now: Spend a lot of money at the pump and feel guilty for not taking public transportation.

Active Tires
What: Sure, airless tires would be great, but wouldn't it be even cooler to have tires made from some sort of synthetic compound that could change with the push of a button to handle different road conditions? One set of tires could take you from summer to winter or, better yet, handle an unexpected rainstorm.
What we do now: Buy all-season tires, replace seasonal tires as needed, or keep summer tires on all year and spend January gazing longingly at our sweet ride as it sits in the garage.

The future of autopilot?

The future of autopilot?

True Autopilot
What: In some ways, we're still far from the cars most of us thought we'd be driving by now. True autopilot — where the navigation system guides the car to its destination while the driver sits back and relaxes — is a huge, futuristic step in the right direction. Whether through an extension of GPS or with the aid of magnets in the road, research into this Jetsons-like technology is already under way.
What we do now: Um ... drive.

Photo illustrations by Eric Rossi, Cars.com.

Posted on 8/1/06