Automobiles

Driverless cars and vehicle networks: We predict the future of car tech

Innovations in power, connectivity and computing innovations accelerate our horseless carriages on to the digital superhighway. Fasten your seatbelts.

If you were to take a motoring pioneer from the early 20th century for a spin in a modern car, the only things likely to confuse a Charles Rolls or Henry Royce would be the fluffy dice and spinning rims. That will all change in the years to come, as power, connectivity and computing innovations accelerate our horseless carriages on to the digital superhighway. Fasten your seatbelts.

Google's driverless-car programme already has eight fully autonomous vehicles cruising the streets of Mountain View, California. Each car is equipped with a spinning 3D laser scanner, four radar units, GPS, accelerometers and a high-definition video camera. They also have enough computing power to recognise other cars and pedestrians, obey traffic lights and navigate themselves automatically from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

"Computers don't get distracted, tired, angry, sleepy or drunk," says Professor Raj Rajkumar of the GM-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab. "You just have to worry about the fact that computers can fail. But, if you put in redundant components that recover right away, roads will be much safer and faster as well."

Did someone say fast? Audi has a fully autonomous TT that can drive itself off-road at up to 130mph and has even competed in America's famous Pikes Peak hill-climb race in Colorado. The car has two computers in its boot: one running safety-critical algorithms using Java and the other responsible for vehicle dynamics.

While fully autonomous cars are still some way off -- Google says at least eight years, GM reckons 10 and Volkswagen a conservative 18 -- driver-assistance tech is already finding its way into high-end luxury models. Adaptive cruise control, virtual bumpers and (soon) traffic-jam autopilots will make it much more difficult to crash. That just leaves the tricky business of getting KITT insured.

Likely release date: Traffic-jam autopilots -- 2011. Completely autonomous vehicles -- 2018.

Forget hybrids. The next buzz-phrase in alternative-fuel technology will be 'extended range'. Unlike hybrids, which switch between petrol and electric engines depending on the conditions, extended-range electric vehicles always use their electric engines for forward motion, but pack another power plant on-board to recharge their batteries.

This gives them freedom to roam beyond the 50-100 mile range of most pure EVs (Tesla's mighty 200-mile-plus Roadster excepted). The first extended-range electric vehicle is almost here -- the long-awaited Chevy Volt (to be sold over here as the Vauxhall Ampera). But car makers are already planning the next generation. Some look little different to current vehicles. Others, like the four-engined Jaguar C-X75 concept car, look more like a carbon-fibre spaceship on wheels.

The thing about extended-range electric vehicles is that the back-up engine doesn't need to be a plain old internal combustion model. Chinese car maker Chery is planning to go back to the future with a highly efficient, multi-fuel, 800cc Wankel rotary engine (no sniggering at the back there). Jaguar is going one eco-friendly step further, planning on twin 70kW micro-turbines for the C-X75, extending its range to a coast-to-coast 560 miles.

Likely release date: Chevy Volt -- early 2011. Non-petrol extended-range electric vehicles -- 2015.

Would you really trust Windows to control your car? Nissan does, using Windows Embedded Automotive 7 in its 2011 all-electric Nissan Leaf. Among other things, the software provides navigation services, a tool for locating charging stations, power-consumption information, and the ability to tweak the in-car air conditioning.

Microsoft is betting big on in-car computing systems, promising a seamless multimedia experience, Silverlight control panels and more. "Drivers shouldn't have to take their eyes off the road to interact with infotainment devices," says Microsoft product manager Steven Bridgeland. When you step into your next new car with a Windows Phone 7 handset, the car will download new emails and contacts over Bluetooth and stream music from the handset via simple voice commands.

Microsoft is also partnering with Ford to push its pun-tastic Hohm energy-monitoring service, designed using advanced analytics licensed from the US government's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A Windows Phone app will alert owners of electric vehicles to the best times and places to recharge their car, based on their individual driving patterns and location.

Let's just hope Microsoft is investing as much in reliability as it is in PR. After all, when you're driving at 70mph, a Blue Windscreen Of Death could mean just that.

Likely release date: First all-Microsoft motor -- 2013.

Unless you're a hard-core auto geek, you probably won't have heard of V2V (vehicle to vehicle) networks. But in just a few years' time, you could be trusting the safety of your whole family (and your genetically engineered llama-dog) to this next-gen communications system.

V2V networks are a way of banishing nightmarish traffic jams. When two or more V2V cars get within range of one another, they form an ad-hoc network that can be used to transmit information about each car's speed, acceleration and route. If one drivers slams on the brakes, for example, that information can be beamed to following cars before they even notice the brake lights, allowing automatic systems to temporarily take control and avoid a crash.

If the worst does happen, cars near an accident will feed information about the delays back through traffic, allowing other motorists to exit the motorway instead of getting snarled up in delays and obstructing the emergency services. Ultimately, drivers may sacrifice control of their cars altogether, letting the V2V network itself keep traffic moving at optimum speed.

The system uses the 5.9GHz radio frequencies and has a range of about a kilometre. It's undergone several real-world trials involving manufacturers such as Ford, Honda, BMW, Toyota and Mercedes.

As with most high-tech systems, V2V will first appear in luxury vehicles. Tomorrow's digital divide might be on our roads, with rich drivers speeding past in computer-controlled safety while the rest of us struggle on overcrowded roads with underpowered eyeballs and puny human reflexes.

Likely release date: Basic V2V -- 2012. Advanced V2V -- 2016.

Don't expect tomorrow's cars to look like today's, or even to look like cars at all. If you want a sneak preview of the future of motoring, skip the perfectly polished concept cars found at international motor shows and look to the Automotive X Prize instead.

The organisers of this competition just handed out £6.5m in prizes to three aspiring eco-friendly car makers. That's because they succeeded in the challenge of building safe, reliable vehicles that exceed 100mpg, emit little carbon dioxide and are -- almost -- ready for mass production.

All three share ultra-aerodynamic, lightweight designs that couldn't be further from those of today's road-hogging, climate-changing SUVs. The overall winner, the Edison2 Very Light Car, can seat four people in a design reminiscent of an F1 racing car, running on a minute 250cc engine using a mixture of petrol and alcohol.

Even crazier were the runners-up. The E-Tracer enclosed tandem motorbike from Switzerland broke the 200mpg barrier, while the all-electric Wave II four-seater is powered by 100 lithium-ion batteries for a mileage equivalent to 187mpg -- and it's already available for pre-order. Its £25,000 price-tag doesn't include air conditioning (£2,000 extra), which may prove a worthwhile upgrade considering the impact of global warming.

Likely release date: First production X Prize car -- 2013.