High-tech rides: Cars with cool technology

By Denise Dubie, Network World |  Tech & society, concept car, future tech

Knight Rider has nothing on what's brewing in the labs of leading automotive researchers.

Today's technologies range from mobile Internet access to collision-detection systems to automated braking and steering capabilities. Some car manufacturers are even designing their cars to offer a personal touch by pulling up drivers' preferences based on fingerprint and other biometric technologies.

Here we detail some of the leading-edge technology embedded in today's cars and what new vehicles are on tap from automotive giants in the near future. (For pictures of these cool auto technologies, view a slideshow version of this story) 

Volvo's version of safe driving
Volvo earlier this year in its XC60 model introduced a feature dubbed City Safety, which promises to reduce the number of low-speed collisions that occur in heavy traffic. The vehicles are equipped with laser sensor technology that works when the car is traveling less than 19 mph. The sensors detect vehicles moving slowly or at a standstill up to 10 meters in front of the car. If as the distance between the cars lessens and the vehicle operator does not react, the car applies the brakes automatically. Volvo says it can not only automate the braking system, but also control steering to direct cars away from a potential crash.

Beemers with brains
BMW will add access to Google Maps' search capability in its 2009 BMW Assist and Navigation system-equipped 1 and 3 series vehicles. Subscribers to BMW's Assist Convenience Plan will be able to access "BMW Search" to locate businesses using a simple keyword, for example. Once the desired location is found, the system will initiate route guidance or a hands-free call with a push of a button, BMW says. The technology comes to BMW vehicles via the AT&T Mobility GSM network, which identifies the current location and destination of the vehicle automatically and then displays the local results with details of address, phone number and distance.

UC Berkeley's Robo-Bus
The California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways program at the University of California Berkeley developed a 60-foot research bus that uses special sensors and processors embedded in the vehicle to detect magnets in the pavement. While a human driver maintains control of braking and acceleration, the bus automates steering using data it receives from the magnets. A test performed in September (with the help of US$320,000 in funding from the California Department of Transportation) demonstrated the bus can make stops with a lateral accuracy of 1 centimeter. Researchers say such precision will reduce docking time at each stop, making an entire route more efficient.

Human-less haul trucks
Carnegie Mellon University partnered with Caterpillar to co-develop intelligent, self-driving off-highway haul trucks. Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) will work closely with Caterpillar's Pittsburgh Automation Center, which opened in September 2007, to add perception, planning and intelligent decision-making capabilities to Caterpillar's two biggest haul trucks -- which can handle loads of 240 tons or more. The efforts will be part of a large-scale mining automation system Caterpillar is building with BHP Billion. Project advocates say automating these operations will improve safety, efficiency and consistency in mining processes. Intelligent haul trucks are scheduled to be at work in BHP Billion mines by 2010.

Chrysler stays connected
Chrysler UConnect is an in-vehicle communication system that lets drivers talk on their Bluetooth-enabled wireless phones. The system incorporates technology created by Mopar, the automobile parts and services arm of Chrysler, and is available in select Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. UConnect enables high-speed data transfer by combining Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity within vehicles, essentially creating a "hot spot" to deliver the Internet directly to the automobile. Without using their hands, drivers can browse Web sites, access e-mail, listen to music, partake in online gaming, view photos and activate GPS systems due to an integrated voice recognition system that's programmed to recognize more than 100,000 words.

Microsoft's ViFi
Microsoft technicians along with researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Washington are developing a new approach to tapping existing mobile technologies from moving vehicles. This vehicle Wi-Fi, or ViFi, as researchers call it, is "a protocol that minimizes disruptions in Wi-Fi connectivity to support interactive applications from moving vehicles." ViFi works to eliminate the difficult handoffs and service hiccups associated with Wi-Fi by providing anchor and auxiliary connections to base stations to help traveling motorists maintain connectivity in their vehicles. If a connection is dropped by the anchor, an auxiliary connection will take over, based on a high-tech probabilistic algorithm developed by the researchers.

Nissan gets buzzy with bee-inspired robot
Bees fly without colliding into objects, so why can't drivers avoid collisions? Nissan Motors researchers at the company's Advanced Technology Center are working on a system that draws inspiration from bees to reduce the number of collisions for automobile operators. The researchers used biomimetic technology, which helps develop synthetic systems based on biological mechanisms, in the BR23C system to create a personal buffer zone -- similar to those of bees -- around its vehicles. The BR23C is among many technologies in Nissan's "Safety Shield" concept that the manufacturer hopes will halve the number of auto accident fatalities and serious injury by 2015.

India's mini-export
Costing about $2,500, Tata Motors' Nano is aimed at consumers who might not be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a typical car. The Nano is scheduled to be available in late 2008 with a diminutive design that rivals other mini-mobiles such as the Volkswagen Beetle and BMW Mini Cooper. It measures a bit more then 10 feet in length and is 5 feet high and wide, according to Tata Motors. The car is powered by a 623cc two-cylinder petrol engine and can reach speeds of about 65 mph, getting about 50 miles to the gallon.

Two-wheeling on Toyota's Winglet
Step aside Segway, here comes the Winglet. Toyota in August introduced the world to its version of the personal transportation vehicle. Currently in a practical testing and usability process, the vehicle rivals Microsoft's Segway and comes in three models: S, M and L. The vehicle consists of a body that houses an electric motor, two wheels and internal sensors that monitor the user's position and make adjustments in power to ensure stability. A parallel link mechanism allows the rider to go forward, backward and turn by shifting body weight, Toyota says. Riders can reach speeds of 6 mph after fully charging the Winglet for an hour.

The Disappearing Car Door
Engineering firm Jatech LLC promises to rid the world of parking lot door dings with a technology designed to enable doors to disappear. The "rotary drop door" rather than opening out would operate on a hinge and slide beneath the car, preventing the door from slamming and people from having to squeeze out of their vehicles in a tight parking space. Similar to an earlier innovation in BMW's Z1 model, Jatech's design resembles a mini-van's sliding door -- except it moves from up to down, providing an easier and safer entry and exit for passengers.

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