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21st Century Cars Hit the Road

Last year, General Motors (GM) made a splash with a concept car called Hy-wire that features Nintendo-style handgrips for steering, plus brakes and an accelerator that work electronically instead of via pressure from the driver's foot. Tired of driving? Hand the controls to your passenger for awhile.

That's pie in the sky for now, but come 2012 or 2015 a surprising amount of it may be for real. Cars will still have a steering wheel. They'll also probably still have a conventional gasoline engine instead of the Hy-wire's fuel-cell-and-hydrogen powerplant. Bernd Bohn, a top executive at Robert Bosch, the huge German auto-components company, recently predicted that internal combustion engines will still have 95% of the market in 2015 and 85% in 2025.

"MORE PROMISE THAN EVER." Electronics will have replaced most mechanical systems, however, and even midrange models will be bristling with sensors, cameras, computer screens, and Wi-Fi connections -- the result of a new era in automobile technology that's just dawning. One indication of the changing times is that over the past two years Bosch has nearly tripled, to 300, the number of its development engineers working on driver-assistance systems, a fancy name for advanced electronics.

Another sign is the comparison drawn by John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "I've been involved [with auto research] for more than 30 years, and there's more action and more promise for improvement now than I've ever seen." Among the advances that seem likely within the next decade:

Safety systems will move from passive protection, such as airbags, to active systems that use radar and cameras to watch for danger. "We've put airbags just about every place you can," notes John Weiner, a U.S. product-planning manager at Toyota (TM). "Within the next five years, the car will use algorithms to anticipate hazards and intervene or warn the driver."

Car keys will be replaced by credit-card style systems already used in some Cadillacs, Infinitis, and BMWs. Already, says Michael Gautier, North American director of corporate technology for Siemens VDO Automotive, the auto components and systems unit of the German electronics giant Siemens (SI), keyless entry is set to debut on some 40 different cars over the next three years.

Every new car will come with a computer-like screen mounted on the dash. It'll display a navigation system that uses a global positioning satellite plus onboard DVDs to provide directions, maps, and information on hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. The video screen also "will show you certain features within the car and connect to other devices such as PDAs and cell phones," says Thilo Koslowski, San Jose (Calif.)-based lead vice-president in the automotive group for business-advisory firm Gartner G2.

Nearly every car will have a Wi-Fi hookup that automatically provides the weather, news, and other information. "We're going to see hot spots in places like gas stations and restaurants," predicts Peter Wengert, a marketing manager for automotive products at Microsoft (MSFT), which is pushing Windows Automotive as a software standard for handling the new communications functions in cars.

Cars will increasingly collect data that can be shared with dealers, manufacturers, and even other vehicles. Dealers or manufacturers, for instance, may do remote diagnostics to help troubleshoot a roadside breakdown.

Within 15 years, the average vehicle will be equipped with 10 to 15 cameras to help parents keep an eye on their kids and help drivers detect blinds spots, Siemens' Gautier predicts. Many cars may have cameras in the front bumper to "see" around corners as the driver eases out of a driveway or alley.

Cars with 40-volt electrical systems will become the standard because today's 12-volt systems can't easily accommodate all the new electronic gizmos.

Voice commands, already used in some BMWs, Jaguars, and Lexuses, will become far more common to help drivers juggle the proliferating functions in their cars.

Brake-by-wire and accelerate-by-wire -- where pressing the pedal sends an electronic signal rather than activating a physical connection to the engine or brakes -- will become common. All Mercedes models have used brake-by-wire since 1994, and the Chevy Corvette and all recent Audis already have electronic gas pedals. Emergency-brake handles will be replaced by an electronic switch, as they have been already in many luxury cars.

Increasingly, cars will be programmable. "We have a vision that you can use electronics to let you choose what kind of vehicle you want to drive," says Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. "You can have it be sporty or luxurious, as you choose."

On the new Audi A8, each driver can program in not only his or her seat and steering-wheel settings but raise and lower road clearance to change the car's "ride" as well (see "Tooling Around in Teutonic Technocars"). Ron Miller, project leader for Intelligent Vehicle Technologies at Ford (F), predicts that by 2010 most new vehicles will have reconfigurable speedometer and other displays with changeable type size -- for aging baby boomers who don't want to wear glasses while driving. "Today it's probably a $400 option," Miller says. "In a year or two it will be $200" and will drop from there.

HOW MAY I HELP YOU? All of these changes will arrive at different times in different countries, in part because of geographic and cultural differences, among them the general litigiousness of American society. In the U.S., carmakers fear added legal liability if an accident occurs despite the intervention of a safety system. Rollover scares such as the Ford Explorer's will help boost the share of new vehicles sold in North America with electronic stability control systems -- which studies show save lives -- from 5% to 12% by 2005, Bosch estimates. But the figure is already 50% in Germany (where a tipsy Mercedes [DCX

] model scared drivers in 1997), 20% in France, and about 12% in Italy, Bosch figures.

The rush is on to build into cars many of the features now offered by GM's OnStar in-car communications system. OnStar, which has more than 2 million U.S. subscribers, delivers numerous services to their cars, from help in an emergency to weather reports and stock quotes. But it uses costly human operators to do much of the communicating, and it's expensive -- subscriptions cost $16.95 to $69.95 per month.

Rivals are hoping to automate OnStar-style services and offer them for free. In Germany, drivers can now sign up for a "floating car data" project, in which vehicles zap information to a computerized traffic-information center that alerts drivers if congestion is ahead, for example.

TOO-AGGRESSIVE?Adding Wi-Fi capability to cars is a cheap way to vastly expand such capabilities -- and not just so drivers can get weather updates, sports scores, and e-mail. German auto makers envisage a distributed, car-to-car communications system in which vehicles will poll on-coming traffic and pass data from car to car and alert drivers up and down the highway to accidents and weather conditions, says Tobias Nickel, a BMW spokesman in Munich. An international consortium of auto companies and parts suppliers is already coming up with standards for such a system.

Meanwhile, so-called lane-departure warning systems are hitting the market in Japan. Typical is the one on the Inspire, an Accord-like Honda sold overseas with an optional "collision mitigation system" priced at $2,000 to $3,000. It warns a driver whose car goes over the white line and also has a radar system that monitors the traffic ahead. In a potential front-end collision, it flashes the lights, starts braking, and even executes a panic stop.

Rival automakers wonder how readily adaptable such systems are to the U.S. market. Michael Lembke, Audi's (VLKAY) marketing director for North America, recently tested one Japanese system and contends that "it has a lot of little things U.S. consumers wouldn't like." The intervention's aggressiveness might turn Americans off, for one. Also, U.S. road markings are far less uniform than in Japan, and the snowfalls in places like Minnesota and North Dakota far heavier. When J.D. Power & Associates queried consumers about paying an extra $1,100 or so for such systems, it found considerable price resistance, according to research director Jeremy Bowler.

THIRST FOR POWER. Similarly, it isn't clear which new fuel-saving technologies will make the fastest inroads in the U.S. The industry is split over which way to go, with Japanese outfits mainly pushing hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, such as Toyota's Prius and Honda's Civic, while the Germans stress high-mileage diesel engines, which will have an estimated 44% share of Europe's new-car market this year. (The Germans also plan to start selling hydrogen- and gasoline-powered hybrids domestically within three years, but hydrogen is unlikely to make a dent in the market for years to come.) GM and Ford, meanwhile, are planning for hybrids, diesel, and hydrogen models.

The key question may be whether the trend toward ever bigger, more powerful U.S. vehicles is finally peaking. Over the past 15 years, computerized engine management and other new technologies have helped make engines 30% more efficient, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. But average fuel efficiency has declined because the gains have been offset by the introduction of bigger engines to power ever larger SUVs and pickup trucks.

The average engine sold in the U.S. is now 165 horsepower, up 63% in the last 20 years, Siemens' Gautier notes. "U.S. drivers love a sense of power, and that's not going to disappear," he adds.

SIMPLER TRANSMISSIONS. Even if vehicles and engines simply stay the same size, new technology can cut average fuel consumption by one-third by 2020 and half by 2030, MIT's Heywood estimates. Hybrids and diesels will be an important factor. But most of the gains will come from wringing more efficiency out of gasoline engines.

Next year, GM plans to start phasing in engines that use a technology called "displacement on demand," which cuts an engine's average fuel consumption by 8% by using only half its cylinders during most normal driving. GM expects 2 million such engines to be in use by 2008. Engines with new, more advanced variable valve controls from BMW and other manufacturers will result in further fuel savings.

Another innovation is the continuously variable automatic transmission, which GM figures can cut fuel consumption by 7% to 11%. These also have 45% fewer parts than conventional four-speed automatics and are now being offered on some Saturn and Audi models.

MORE OOMPH. Bosch has developed yet another gas-hoarding device, a system that allows the engine to shut off when a car is idling at a stop light or in traffic jams. Its new Directstart system can instantly restart the engine when the driver hits the gas pedal by igniting the combustion mixture in the fuel-injection system without engaging the starter motor. Bosch figures Directstart can cut a vehicle's fuel consumption by up to 5%.

Performance won't necessarily suffer. One advantage of diesel and electric engines is that they have high torque at low speeds -- quick pickup. Toyota's new Lexus RX 330 sport-utility vehicle, for instance, is the first hybrid with "the performance of a V8 and the mileage of a compact car," Weiner says. Both GM and BMW are experimenting with small electric motors designed to save fuel while maintaining oomph by giving conventional engines a boost at low speeds.

Best of all, the innovative technologies may not force prices up much: The average new vehicle in the U.S now costs $25,400, including finance charges, yet the median income Americans spend on a new car has dropped to 20 weeks of pay, from 30 weeks a decade ago, according to Detroit-based Comerica Bank.

BIG DISTRACTIONS. Moreover, some of the latest technology takes cost out of a car. Electronic parking brakes may cost about the same as mechanical ones, but they take up less cabin space, thus giving designers new latitude, as well as having a safety advantage over handbrakes: They go on automatically when the car is idling or stopped on a hill. "You reduce complexity and warranty [claims], add features, and because it's electronic it won't cost any more," says Ford's Miller.

The newest technologies do have some drawbacks. One is just how well a driver can concentrate in a car larded with CD and video players, navigation systems, cell phones, and other gizmos. Internet access -- which can be delivered via the navigation system screen -- is already coming to market in Japan and parts of Europe. "We're technically capable of doing it today, [but] we truly believe it could be unsafe," says Audi's Lembke. "We took it out of our cars because we felt it was pushing the limits of driver distraction."

Privacy issues will arise, too. If cars start to record and transmit data on things like speed, where the driver has been, and whether the wipers were on in a storm, then the family car could become a snitch on its driver.

DRIVERS STILL NEEDED. The new features will also test the limits of consumers' confidence in technology. For instance, replacing exterior rear-view mirrors with cameras would increase fuel economy by 3% to 5% at highway speeds, Gautier says, but he calls the idea "controversial." Would drivers accept seeing the road behind them partly via images on a screen?

Another key test is steering-by-wire. BMW is introducing the closest thing yet to such an option on its new 5-series sedans. It uses electronics and a planetary gear box to help with steering but also has a conventional steering system as a backup. Many experts expect steering columns to disappear eventually, though that will probably require regulatory approval. "Most customers won't even know about it," contends Joseph Phillippi, head of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J. "Only car buffs will know that there's no physical connection between the steering wheel and the front end."

Will cars ever drive themselves? Probably not for a few decades. Replacing humans is a tremendously complex software problem, Stanford's Gerdes says. "Fully automated driving is one of those things that since the 1940s has always been 15 years in the future," he adds. "We never seem to get there."

That can wait. The changes that are just around the corner will be amazing enough. By Thane Peterson, a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online

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