Car Technology of the Future

What will and won’t make it into our personal vehicular transport in years to come?

Cars that talk to you. Cars that talk to each other. Self-driving cars. Flying cars. Cars with flux capacitors. It’s hard to know what will and won’t make it into production for the vehicles of the future, so we’ve assembled a list of some of the key functions to determine whether or not they have any chance of making it into reality.

Communicating Vehicles

There are two strands to this one, which are vehicle-to-vehicle communications (V2V) and vehicle-to-everything comms (V2X), the latter of which is more properly now rendered as vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I). Using cloud-based systems of messaging, connected cars can relay information about their own condition or incidents on the roads to a centralised grid. This then beams out these warnings and updates to all other cars that are connected to the system – so if your car has broken down in a dangerous spot round a blind bend, connected cars will be warned that you are there long before they reach the corner. V2V would also potentially help with advanced driver assist safety (ADAS) systems, by preventing some minor shunts and lane-swap incidents, while V2I would see cars communicating with traffic lights and other roadside furniture to better smooth traffic flow in congested areas. Of course, as more and more cars become connected, it means older classics that aren’t part of the info-grid may have to be phased out,

Self-Driving Cars

The biggie right now, because Teslas feature a device called Autopilot, which seems to suggest the car will drive itself for miles and miles on end. This is not strictly true (but don’t tell the Teslarati…), as fully self-controlling, robotic cars are what is known as Level 5 autonomy. Currently, most global legislation only allows for Level 2 autonomy, which includes devices familiar to us now such as Lane-Keep Assist and Autonomous Emergency Braking. Level 3 is coming soon, which will allow cars to pilot themselves for longer periods of time without human intervention in slow traffic and on less challenging roads, like motorways. Levels 4 and 5 of autonomy, which are the real sci-fi stuff that results in things like the Johnny Cab from Total Recall or those whizzing pods Tom Cruise used to get around in Minority Report, are at least ten years off yet. Neither prevailing laws in countries around the globe nor the level of technology we have at our disposal support such things.

Autonomous Car

Augmented Reality Displays

This one’s already here. On the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment, you can have augmented reality (AR) navigation. As you approach a junction or roundabout, the camera at the front of the car – used for various ADAS systems – instead switches to a live-stream view of the road ahead of you. Then, large blue arrows on the video feed show you exactly which road to turn down or where to leave the roundabout, decreasing your chances of taking the wrong exit from the graphical map view alone. The natural extension of this is AR head-up displays (HUD) and then AR windscreens, with extra information to keep the driver and car safe broadcast directly onto the large glass panel at the front of the car.

Inductive Charging

An extension of the same Qi wireless charging feature on your smartphone, this is one for electric vehicles (EVs) and maybe some plug-in hybrids. Instead of having to physically plug a cable into a socket on the side of the car to replenish the on-board battery pack, you park the vehicle over a special inductive charging pad mounted on the floor; typically, in a car park or similar urban area. The benefit of this is it’s simpler for the owner, who parks the car over the pad and then walks away before just driving off once they return to the vehicle, and it’s safer in inclement weather, because there are no charging (electrical) ports exposed to the wind and rain. The flipside is that, if you’ve ever charged your phone inductively, you’ll know it doesn’t quite juice itself up as fast as it does on a cable – and the same is true for cars. However, as the inductive charging technology develops, this lag should be eliminated. And it also raises the intriguing (if incredibly expensive) thought that a network of inductive charging lines could be installed under roads, so your EV picks up battery power as it goes along. Theoretically leading to an infinite range, as long as the inductive charging network is functioning…

Light Shows

Advanced illumination is a big game in the automotive industry right now, with headlights that turn around corners and matrix main beams that dip part of their field to avoid dazzling other road users, while maximising light coverage ahead of the vehicle for the driver. But beyond this, there’s the idea that LED displays on the outside of the car could transmit messages to other road-user groups – other cars, cyclists and pedestrians, for example. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Concept of 2015 had front LED displays that told pedestrians to safely cross in front of it, for instance, while Volkswagen is planning much the same thing with its ID EVs and Hyundai showed off similar tech on the Prophecy Concept earlier this year.

Solid-State Batteries

Any company working in EVs says this is the key to unlocking the full potential of zero- and low-emission vehicles. As the name suggests, these power cells have solid electrodes and a solid electrolyte, as opposed to a liquid of polymer-gel electrolytes found in the current lithium-ion battery packs. SSBs, as they are known, have a much higher energy density than liquid batteries but they’re also much more expensive to make and develop. However, as technology develops, the price of it reduces and so it won’t be long before SSBs become affordable and commonplace, leading to far greater single-charge ranges on EVs – and perhaps finally making everyone move from internal combustion to electric power.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

In theory, a plug-in hybrid is the best of both worlds (internal combustion and electric), but in reality, they aren’t the answer to all problems. But what if you replaced the internal combustion engine with a hydrogen fuel cell instead? You’d still have the electric motors for propulsion and a battery pack onboard with which to run such things, but the fuel burnt to extend the range of the EV is now hydrogen. And all that is emitted from tailpipes when you burn hydrogen is water vapour, so the resulting car (a fuel-cell electric vehicle, or FCEV) remains zero-emissions at all times, has the massive range and the refuelling times of a petrol or diesel model. What are the drawbacks? Well, there’s not much in the way of global infrastructure. Hydrogen filling stations are thin on the ground, mainly because producing hydrogen fuel in great quantities is somewhat pricey. And so, manufacturers aren’t flocking to FCEVs as the answer in the mid-term. Sure, BMW, Toyota and Hyundai are three companies who clearly believe in the future of hydrogen, but none of the other carmakers seem to be making significant moves towards the fuel type right now. It’s a shame, because this seems to be the easiest and most affordable answer to the ongoing ‘green cars’ problem right now.

Flying Cars

Now you’re just being silly. Although there are plenty of companies who have dreamt of such things, and actually one Dutch firm – PAL-V – has come up with the Liberty flying car, which it showed off at this year’s Salon Privé event over in the UK. Frankly, though, apart from Scaramanga’s airborne AMC Matador in The Man With The Golden Gun, we’ve never really been sold on the idea of flying cars…

Flying Car

Flux Capacitor

Also a nope. DMC no longer exists and unless one of the car companies has appointed Doc Emmett Brown on the sly, then travelling backwards and forwards through time in a car is going to have to be restricted to the legendary Back to the Future film trilogy.