The Future Awaits

By Chandra Orr

August 21, 2009 5 min read

Still waiting for that flux capacitor?

You may not be going "Back to the Future" any time soon, but greener cars that check e-mail, change color with the flip of a switch and prevent drivers from running red lights are on the horizon.

"It's going to be wild. The next ten years should be quite interesting," said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief at Edmunds.com.

SAFER CARS

In the next 10 years, safety systems will get smart -- very smart.

"One thing we know for sure -- cars will keep getting smarter and more capable of countering driver error, coinciding with greater connectivity," Brauer said.

Lane departure warnings, rearview backup cameras and collision avoidance technology are already on the scene. The 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, for example, features high-tech alerts to counter driver drowsiness and a crash avoidance system that automatically engages the brakes to avoid imminent collisions.

Future versions will rely on GPS and internal "smart" computers to keep drivers out of harm's way.

"Your car will have an awareness of its surroundings," Brauer explained. "Your car will not only know where it is on the planet, it will know where all the other cars are around it and be able to talk to those cars."

Vehicles of the future will automatically reroute themselves to avoid accidents, steer clear of emergency vehicles and even prevent drivers from breaking the law.

"In theory, we might never have a car run a red light -- the car won't let you go through a red light. It will stop itself," Brauer said.

SMARTER CARS

In the coming years, GPS navigation systems will be as standard as CD players, but they'll do way more than plot your route.

"Cars are becoming mobile offices. With the increasing amount of traffic in modern cities and the average commute getting longer and longer, it's becoming more desirable to be productive in the car," Brauer explained.

Imagine locating the cheapest gas in town, booking a hotel room and checking e-mail all from behind the wheel, just by saying the word. Voice-recognition software might even let drivers dictate responses.

Your car will likely connect with everything from your home -- pull into the driveway and the lights automatically turn on -- to the service station. Pull in for your regular oil change and the mechanic may have already downloaded service records from your car's computer.

"Anything you can think of that you can do from your house with an Internet connection, you will be able to do from within your car," Brauer said.

GREENER CARS

Today's greenest vehicles will soon be a thing of the past. In the quest for ever-better gas mileage and lower emissions, electric/diesel hybrids look very promising.

"A diesel hybrid makes absolute sense," Bauer said. "Electric motors are good at low speeds, whereas diesel engines are great in highway situations. They can hold a high speed with minimal gas usage. It's the best of both worlds."

Volkswagen has been toying with the idea for years -- recent reports point to a full diesel hybrid Golf that gets 70 miles per gallon. It's been dubbed the "Prius-killer."

For short trips, the car will cruise through in-town traffic using no internal combustion. A regenerative braking system will help keep the nickel-metal hydride battery charged. Hit the highway and the super-efficient diesel kicks in.

There's no official word on when the Golf hybrid will hit the market, but expect plenty of copycats to follow.

COOLER CARS

From MINI Cooper to Scion, manufacturers of today's customizable cars are gaining quite a following -- and turning heads.

With swap-out panels in an array of colors and dozens of choose-your-own accents like stripes, flags and insignias, these brands bank on the public's desire to express their individuality, and the trend will only continue.

"Being able to personalize your car will be big," Brauer said. "To an extent, modern cars are all essentially the same. They're all comfortable, safe, dependable and well-engineered, so manufacturers look for ways to differentiate their brands."

As burgeoning technologies get cheaper and easier to produce, drivers can look forward to changing the color of their car to fit their mood.

"Digital screens are all over the place. They've become more durable and more affordable. I wouldn't be surprised if one day the exterior body of your car is like a rolling television set that you can alter as easily as flipping a switch," Brauer said.

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