The Cars of the Future Are Almost Here

It's always fun to see how science fiction predicts the future. Often, it imagines easier, cooler ways we'll get from one place to another, the pinnacle being teleportation like seen on Star Trek. But less aggressive imaginings can be found through various conceptions of cars of the future. Despite it being close to 2015, the flying cars of Back to the Future Part II aren't nearly here, though there has been some progress on that front. But visions of self-driving cars, as found in Minority Report during the year 2054 and in I, Robot during the year 2035 might not be so outlandish.

That was my initial reaction to a Ford presentation for press at the DC Auto show a few weeks ago. The company is not the first to innovate around intelligent car design, but it's making some very exciting steps forward.

Of course, a very early invention that allowed the driver to do less was cruise control. But this was a pretty small step. All it did was allow you to rest your foot while you maintain the same speed.

A more significant step was taken in the last decade when several automakers developed technology allowing drivers' to escape one of their least favorite tasks: parallel parking. In 2003, Toyota unveiled a version of its Prius that could automatically parallel park. In years to come, Toyota would add reverse parking. BMW and others would subsequently refine the technology to create vehicles that could also sense parallel parking spaces as you drive along.

Ford has developed a few technologies that riff off object detection technology using radar. One is its cross traffic alert that warns you of oncoming vehicles as you pull out of a parking space:

Another using similar technology is its blind-spot information system:

This one, as you can probably guess, warns you when there's a car in your blind spot when you begin to change lanes. Again, very cool, but not really a huge step forward. All we're getting here is more radar-based detection. A much more impressive step would be if cars could begin to communicate with one another.

Yet this more advanced technology is also being developed by Ford in a number of intelligent car initiatives that were showcased at the DC auto show. The most impressive is its smart intersection technology. Here's a video explaining how it works:

If it really does what Ford says, then this is a major leap forward. These vehicles are using wireless data technology to simultaneously monitor traffic signals, GPS data, and other vehicles to warn drivers of coming hazards. The video also explains its safe vehicle passing technology which consists of vehicles' computers "talking" to one another to warn drivers if passing on a two-lane road is unsafe. Finally, it can alert you more effectively when road congestion is ahead and direct you to alternate routes.

This intelligent technology hasn't given us cars that drive themselves -- yet. But it doesn't seem like a lot of dramatic new innovation would be necessary to make that jump. Now that technology exists so that cars can communicate with each other, it's pretty easy to imagine how self-driving cars would work. When you get in a car, you type in your destination. This is transmitted wirelessly to a real-time traffic database. A computer program that manages traffic flow then inserts the car as a new variable into its roads system, taking other vehicles' trips into account. It then brings you to your destination without any driver involvement needed, since the vehicles can communicate with one another to ensure a smooth, safe trip.

There are at least three big obstacles in the way of self-driving cars, however. The first is designing the computer program that controls the traffic without bugs that could cause accidents. The second is having these vehicles on a wireless network fast enough to provide very quick response time. The third, and most significant, is a world in which every car on the road is an intelligent car. Since a computer can't perfectly model arbitrary driver behavior, a very effective program will be difficult to create if cars are outside its system. This means virtually every car on the road that can't be easily upgraded to an intelligent vehicle technology would have to be scrapped before self-driving cars can take over.

Unfortunately, that could take decades. But it's some consolation that a vision of the future where we no longer have to worry about driving looks possible. And for now, we can be content to know that a large portion of driver error might be eliminated in the years to come as intelligent vehicles continue to progress.