Fifteen years into the 21st century, and predictions of future technology from the last decades of the last millennium are evaporating like mirages as we approach. The much desired hoverboards from the Back to the Future films have practically failed (at the time of writing) to float into our grasp, as have many other advances dreamed up in TV and films of that era. There are no flying cars, and certainly no home fusion generators to power them. One of the most memorable “cars of the future” from TV is that driven by David Hasselhoff in the 80s TV series Knight Rider, which made a self-driving, intelligent vehicle seem a realistic possibility. But how close are we to that techno-magical dream car after thirty years?
Muscle car to miniscule
The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that was the real star of Knight Rider is now a nostalgic memory. Fuel costs and traffic congestion, not to mention parking difficulties, have driven motorists into smaller vehicles. Increased fuel economy has been boosted by hybrid electric vehicles, which gain nothing from larger sizes, and even impressive sports handling has been demonstrated by electric vehicles. The future is even smaller with two and one person vehicles being presented as viable alternative to the sedans and wagons of the past. Speaking of efficiency, nothing misled the public about what a turbo booster could do like a single button on a TV show. Turbo can recycle engine exhaust to extract some wasted fuel, and improve performance of a vehicle, and modern electric turbos are even effective on small engines. But they won’t help your car jump over boxes or other cars as you may have been led to believe.
Nothing says future tech like lasers, even though most of us have been using them for years in CD and DVD players. But what purpose could there be for lasers in a car? Rather than zapping enemy agents, lasers may be the next generation of headlights, being smaller and more efficient than current LED versions (which have largely replaced old fashioned light bulbs in many vehicles). Of course they won’t shoot out in narrow beams, but will be aimed backwards to reflect off lensed mirrors before illuminating the road in front of the car. Though the technology has already met with some resistance, safety testing will eventually approve or disprove their usefulness. As long as we’re relying on human senses and reflexes to drive, being able to see will be pretty important, but that might be changing too.
Computers take over
On-board computers had become a standard feature of vehicles since way back in the 80s. Initially they were diagnostic and control devices as on-board systems became more electronic than mechanical. But modern vehicles feature digital displays as standard, and automatic computer-controlled features such as headlights and climate control are common. While the actor’s voice in the Knight Rider TV show was certainly “artificially intelligent”, voice controls are already a reality, and artificial intelligence such as the kind found in smart phones is already finding its way into vehicles. It’s even possible that cars will soon be able to communicate directly with each other, which could be useful if they can tell each other what they are doing next without having to wait for the driver to respond to visual cues.
The way we control cars is likely to change beyond voice activation, and touch-free controls are likely to become more common, being able to swipe near a control panel instead of touching it directly is much less distracting for a driver. And while the computers might control every function of the car from braking (and anti-lock braking), cruise control and even changing gears, it’s possible that soon they may look after all the driving. At least, a form of autopilot seems to be a genuine reality, designed to reduce driver fatigue on long stretches of highway and freeway. Of course the driver can’t sit back and have a nap, because there will always be emergencies, but it could help long-distance drivers arrive less tired.
While a simple voice command is a long way off getting your car to take you home, some promising testing towards autonomous cars has been done. There are a couple of versions, one relying on sensors built in to the car and the road, and the other on a “lead car” that can head up a train of cars (which might make one wonder if it’s easier to actually take the train). Google have been particularly ambitious with driverless technology and have invested heavily both monetarily and time-wise (with over a million miles clocked in the testing phase!), and in recent months they finally unveiled their revamped version of an adorable, fully-functional, self-driving electrical car. Google had initially imagined them to be commercially available in the US by the end of 2015, but legislative processes are yet to reflect the technological advances.
Private taxi service giant Uber is now in the race to catch up. Indeed, possibly the major obstacle in the path of this technology may be legislation surrounding the use of the cars. For example, who is responsible for an accident involving a self-driving vehicle: the owner, the driver, or the manufacturer of the vehicle? Such legal speed bumps may be still a way down the track, as this kind of testing is still in the preliminary stages. In the meantime, there are already vehicles on the market that can parallel park themselves for those who find it tricky.
Safe as houses
Travelling in a car on the road with other drivers all doing their own thing is an inherently risky business, but advances in technology have not only improved the driving experience, but made cars safer to travel in as well. The advent of seatbelts is an obvious example, while crumple zones and airbags have also prevented serious injuries since they were introduced. Even reversing cameras have prevented damage to vehicles, if not to people. Sensors in some cars already warn drivers of getting too close to things, and that kind of technology will only improve and become more common over time. But ultimately cars are still driven by human drivers at present. As we all know, to err is human, and drivers get tired, distracted, and make mistakes. Those mistakes can cause accidents, so it’s a good idea to compare the best comprehensive car insurance, no matter how technologically advanced your car may be.
*top image source