J003-Content-Automotive-Tech_SQPhones aren’t the only pieces of machinery that have gotten smart in recent years.  Automobiles have also been quietly increasing their levels of “intelligence.”  Cars have been computerized for a long time, but the technology is moving to the next level, with their onboard computers no longer confined to hiding deep inside to keep tabs on the engine, fluid levels and other “innards” of the vehicle’s systems but now coming out to interact directly with the driver and passengers.

The cars of my childhood were simpler, mechanical entities but in the 1980s, on-board computers began to creep into the design primarily for the purpose of more precisely measuring and controlling fuel injection. In the 90s, at the same time desktop computers were becoming standard household items that could do more than just word processing and spreadsheets, the ones embedded in our automobiles were likewise growing more sophisticated. Slowly they took over such processes as the braking system, engine performance and climate control.

The next development was the “black box,” or event data recorder (EDR), which are built into the vast majority of new cars and can record information such as speed, acceleration and braking to be used for accident investigation purposes in case of a collision and as courtroom evidence if a lawsuit or criminal charges are involved. Although the data is also useful in helping the car’s systems take safety actions – such as tightening the seatbelts – other possible uses have raised concerns about privacy, particularly in light of government efforts to make the recorders mandatory.

EDRs, however, are simple components in comparison to some of the advanced computerized functions that are coming out in new vehicles. The use of voice commands to control the cars’ lighting and “infotainment” systems is almost old hat now. Heads-up displays are all the rage in high-end autos, and some vehicles can be locked and unlocked via your smart phone. There are monitoring systems for keeping tabs on teenagers’ driving behavior, too.

Last year at CES, we saw a BMW that could go find a parking place after you get out, and be summoned to pick you up through a smart watch app. Of course, the Next Big Thing in automotive tech is destined to be the driverless car. Google’s efforts toward that end probably got the most publicity, but many companies are working on carrying their current driver assist technologies to the next level. Also at CES, Mercedes showed off front seats that swivel to face the back when the car is driving itself.  The U.S. Secretary of Transportation predicted that driverless vehicles will be in use across the globe within the next ten years. I’m eager to see what innovations CES 2016 in January will bring in this sector.

One thing we know is that the in-vehicle user interface is getting better. The UConnect system in some Dodge and Chrysler models has a big screen, nice layout for navigation and good voice recognition. Then there’s that 17 inch display in the Tesla S, which also includes an “Autopilot” feature by which you can change lanes with the tap of a turn signal and parallel park on demand.  All this comes at a hefty price, however, averaging nearly $80,000.

An alternative to having a huge monitor embedded in your dash is the Heads Up Display (HUD), which is available on many of the new models. This projects a transparent image onto your windshield right in front of you, so that you (in theory) don’t have to take your eyes off the road while you’re driving. While many tout it as a safety feature (keeping you from having to look away at a phone or dash display), others worry that it might be more distracting since it overlays your view of the road ahead and puts your focus at the nearer distance. HUDs are available both built into the car and as add-on devices, and you can even simulate the HUD with some smartphone apps that display a reverse image of the phone’s screen on the windshield when you mount it on the dash facing the glass. Naturally the ones that are wired into the car are capable of providing you with the most information.

There are many systems out there now that let you use your phone or tablet to control the car’s infotainment system; Chevrolet’s MyLink is one example of this. Toyota’s Entune is another hybrid system that connects to the cloud through your smart phone to use its array of included apps. Of course, in-dash navigation was one of the tech features that really got the ball rolling as far as connected cars are concerned, but it is becoming less important as many people prefer to rely on nav apps such as Waze, which are installed on their smartphones. Bluetooth in vehicles, on the other hand, is getting more sophisticated and more popular as it lets you pair your phone with the car’s infotainment system. Some can stream not just your music but even your Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Where does the cloud fit into all of this? Obviously much of today’s in-car technology is dependent on the Internet either on a continuous basis or periodically (for example, to update maps on a nav system).  This brings some exciting new opportunities for tech companies to expand their products and services. Will the cloudification of computing combined with the computerization of driving prove to be the perfect storm that takes transportation to a whole new plane of existence?

Smartphone vendors have already gotten into the game with such technology as Apple’s CarPlay for connecting iPhones to vehicle infotainment units and Android Auto that gives you hands-free control of GPS/navigation, music playback, SMS, telephony and web search. Smartphone integration makes sense, because so many people already own one, and the cost of similar technology built into the vehicle can add hundreds or even thousands to the price of a car.

Connecting a car to the Internet is technologically pretty much the same as connecting a phone. As long as there is an LTE radio built in, the car can send and receive signals over a carrier’s compatible 4G network and serve as a wi-fi hotspot for other devices. OnStar now offers integrated mobile hotspot as part of its services. OnStar subscribers (and non-subscribers too) can pay from $5-50/month for 200MB to 5GB of data usage.

Internet connectivity in the car is a controversial subject. Certainly the problem of texting and driving is a real one, and has resulted in many tragic accidents, some of them fatal. On the other hand, the wealth of information about driving conditions, road closures, traffic, weather and other factors affecting your route can make us safer as we venture through the roadways. Waze has proven that “social nav” is a viable concept, providing user-reported information about objects in the road, traffic jams, and even the location of police vehicles up ahead (which just might slow down some speeders).

If and when driverless cars are perfected and become the norm, we’ll all be passengers instead of drivers and we’ll be able to use our time in our cars to get work done on our computers, relax and read a novel on our tablets, or catch up on all those phone calls we need to return. Automotive technology is already racing toward that future, and I’m looking forward to someday experiencing its full potential.