Jeep's future tech may include follow-me drones and off-road autonomy
At Stellantis' EV Day, Jeep detailed a range of wild future tech, including off-road self-driving, vehicle-to-vehicle charging and follow-me drones.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Jeep stopped short of guaranteeing that these technologies will appear in future models (the video presentation's off-road vignettes featured a disclaimer saying, "Concept models and features, and fictional situations shown throughout. Future models and features may vary"). However, many of these features are already technologically feasible today, so it wouldn't be at all surprising to see some of them incorporated in future models soon.
The 21st-century equivalent of siphoning gas between tanks to bail out a pal, Jeep teased "peer-to-peer" charging, essentially plugging one electrified vehicle into another to share juice. While such a feature could be very helpful in urban life, it's even easier to imagine the potentially lifesaving benefit of vehicle-to-vehicle electron sharing in the wilderness, where the stakes of running out of power are often significantly higher.
It's already possible using a number of off-the-shelf drones to tag and follow a moving target, be it a bicyclist, a skateboarder or an off-road SUV. But to this point, that "follow-me" functionality has not been baked into a production car or truck. Jeep may be about to change that. The automaker previewed a new drone-pairing function that includes dashboard integration that would allow you to record video of your on- and off-road adventures from a birds-eye view. Stellantis' presentation depicts a young couple being followed off-road in their Wrangler by a drone at night, and they appear to be able to keep tabs on their surveilling friend using the SUV's Uconnect infotainment display. A timeline overlaid on the video suggests that this technology could appear by 2025.
The traditional car key's days seem to be numbered. Already we have phone-as-key technology from a number of automakers, as well as novel all-weather RFID-enabled bracelets, hotel-key-ike cards and other nontraditional ways to get into and start one's vehicle. Now, Jeep is positing that another tech might be on the way in future Jeeps: biometric recognition. By scanning outside of the vehicle, future Jeeps may be able to identify authorized users to enable vehicle access and operation without fumbling around for a key or phone, or even remembering a simple security combination. Most of today's new vehicles are already equipped with high-resolution cameras for active safety features, so it's not hard to imagine a future where these cameras and other sensors are used to identify and approve drivers and occupants as they approach a vehicle. The timeline overlaid on the presentation suggests that this tech may become a reality by 2025.
Frankly, the idea of full self-driving on city streets and freeways feels like an increasingly unobtainable goal, so the notion of enabling fully autonomous driving off-road may seem even more far-fetched. That said, it might not be, as you're a lot less likely to encounter challenging and dynamic situations like cross-town traffic, cyclists and pedestrians. In any case, Jeep seems optimistic about the idea of launching driverless vehicles off-road, teasing the tech during Stellantis EV Day 2021. Such tech could be useful for sending a vehicle alone for additional supplies, or perhaps to bring an incapacitated adventurer to safety. It's worth noting that Jeep makes a point of saying "autonomous-capable" in the video -- the company seems to understand that owners will still want the experience of getting behind the wheel for themselves at times. The timeline overlaid on the presentation suggests that this tech may become a reality around 2030.
Remote vehicle tracking
The idea of sending your vehicle off autonomously might sound a bit unnerving, which is where this next innovation comes in. Remote vehicle tracking -- being able to see and keep tabs on your vehicle's whereabouts when it's off running around in self-driving mode -- could offer welcome reassurance. The video briefly depicts a woman using a pair of smart glasses to keep tabs on her vehicle, which is in motion. The video timeline overlaid on the presentation ballparks a 2030 timeframe for this tech.
Jeep also showed a Wrangler with lie-flat "stargazing" seats that essentially turn the 4x4's cabin into a bed (not unlike the 2021 Ford F-150's new Max Recline front seats). In a dramatic twist that draws on the company's autonomous-off-road capability mentioned above, a fanciful video depicts a couple lying back and looking out through a Wrangler's open roof, keeping warm under a blanket as the vehicle drives itself along in search of astral views. While that self-driving bit may be a bit further down the technology path, lie-flat seating in a Wrangler -- an outdoors vehicle that's been a camping favorite for decades -- seems like a very useful and eminently doable future feature.