Self-driving cars are coming – someday.
But for now, carmakers and suppliers are focused on technologies that improve vehicle safety, security and convenience.
With the 2019 New York Auto Show set to begin next week with media previews, car companies are looking for ways to stand out from the competition in an era when quality and reliability are similar across brands.
“These things that a few years ago were expensive options on luxury cars are now safety features” across most line-ups, said Tom Mayor, a consultant at KPMG who advises car companies on their strategies.
Completely driverless cars are more than 10 to 15 years out, he said. But here are six new technologies you can expect long before you can buy a self-driving car.
1. More secure ways to start a car
Concerns about theft and a desire to offer more convenience have led automakers to pursue new ways to unlock and start vehicles.
Wireless key fobs left in vehicles are making it easier for thieves to steal cars. Auto theft hit an eight-year high in 2017.
At the New York Auto Show, Hyundai is introducing a “Digital Key” that allows vehicle owners to open and start their cars with their smartphones.
The system can be programmed to work with up to four phones. It will use near-field communication (NFC) technology to detect whether the approved phone is close to the vehicle’s door. When it’s placed on a wireless charging pad in the center console, the driver can start and stop the car with a button.
Hyundai is bringing the technology, previously available largely only on luxury brands like Tesla, to mainstream buyers of the redesigned 2020 Sonata, which will be unveiled at the New York.
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“If you are a tech-savvy user, you don’t really need to carry the fob,” said Manish Mahrotra, director of digital business planning and connected operations for Hyundai. “Your phone will do all the functions that your fob does today.”
Hyundai is also developing a fingerprint-scanning system for starting a vehicle, but it has not announced plans to bring that technology to the U.S.
2. In-car monitoring systems
Getting distracted behind the wheel? Had too many drinks and started driving anyway?
Your car might soon be able to stop that risky behavior.
Volvo announced in March that it “believes intoxication and distraction should be addressed by installing in-car cameras and other sensors that monitor the driver and allow the car to intervene.”
The company is installing in-cabin cameras on all of its vehicles beginning “in the early 2020s.” It did not reveal details about where they would be positioned or how many there would be.
But the Chinese-owned Swedish automaker said it “wants to start a conversation about whether car makers have the right or maybe even the obligation to install technology in cars that changes” driver behavior.
General Motors already has in-car cameras installed in Cadillac cars equipped with an automated highway driving system called Super Cruise. The cameras monitor the driver’s eye movement to ensure they stay awake and keep their eyes on the road. If the cameras detect anything awry, they alert the driver to pay attention and can even bring the vehicle to a halt if the person doesn’t respond.
3. Augmented reality
Automakers are rapidly advancing augmented reality systems to help drivers keep their eyes on the road instead of looking away to get directions, for example.
Some luxury models already have the capability to project the speed limit and other limited information onto a small windshield display for the driver to see. But engineers are going a step further.
“We’re continuing to see a lot of focus on technologies that will reduce driver distraction,” Mayor said. “Picture a full-windshield heads-up display that can project the turn arrow actually onto the road in front of you or at least give you that perception with augmented reality.”
4. Partially self-driving technologies
For self-driving cars to become a reality, they must be able to create a continuously updating digital picture of the environment surrounding them. That requires advanced sensors and radar systems.
Auto supplier Magna International is developing what it calls “Icon Radar,” which provides military-grade ability to distinguish between individual objects and enables driverless car technology.
“The existing radar systems are analog,” said Swamy Kotagiri, Magna’s chief technology officer. “We looked into the future and said, ‘We see a transformation just like … in the cell phone industry where you went from analog to digital.”
Kotagiri described the system as “imaging radar.” The company said it would be available beginning in 2019.
“It’s a quantum jump in resolution, both in vertical and in longitudinal,” he said. “It has the capability to distinguish between two different objectives even though they’re very close to each other – for example, a pedestrian standing next to a stop sign.”
5. Bigger, more advanced touchscreens
Tesla’s introduction of a large touchscreen as a replacement for most physical controls in the vehicle has influenced competitors to move in a similar direction.
Infotainment screens are bulking up. Some customers and safety watchdogs have complained that these screens are a safety risk because they lack the tactile feel of physical controls.
But the recent arrival of more reliable voice-assistant technologies in the vehicle, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri, will help alleviate some of the safety issues.
Bigger infotainment screens are “where the market is going,” Mayor said. “It makes for easy over-the-air upgrades, (and) it lets consumers use their favorite apps in the vehicle.”
6. More driver assistance systems
Completely driverless cars that don’t need a safety driver and can operate in any environment are still a long way off. Perhaps decades, as Mayor suggested.
But safety systems that assist the driver are becoming more common in mainstream models. Previously available largely on luxury cars, systems like lane-keeping assistance and automatic emergency braking are making their way into everyday models.
In fact, automakers have pledged to make automatic emergency braking standard on all vehicles by September 2022.
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