Full Throttle

Innovations Keeping the Auto Industry on the Move

Amy K. Stewart

July 9, 2013

“Roads? We don’t need roads!” Doc Brown says to Marty McFly in the popular ‘80s movie Back to the Future.

While flying cars still aren’t quite in the picture yet, the automobile industry is making leaps and bounds into the future with the help of technology. Innovative auto trends are expected to emerge in the next couple decades, including driverless cars, improved safety technology and increased fuel efficiency.

“It’s an exciting time in the world of car design,” says Jeff Miller, general manager of Mark Miller Subaru. “We are going to see some pretty cool stuff coming out in the next few years.”

It may be years before car owners are comfortable with the concept of driverless cars, but the idea has already been transformed into reality by Google. Driverless cars, controlled via computer, are being tested on California and Nevada freeways.

“The big talk is driverless cars,” Miller says. “This could happen within 20 years. The question is how comfortable people will be with this.”

Drivers are likely to accept new technology in steps, says John Miller, assistant general manager of Mark Miller Toyota. When it comes to the driverless vehicle, “it’s just a question of when,” he says.

Safety First

What auto owners are ready for right now is upgraded safety features, and the auto industry is prepared to meet this challenge. Years ago, skid prevention—in which the tire has traction and won’t slip on surfaces—was considered to be the new thing; now it is standard. “There is so much new technology out there,” Jeff Miller says. “You are going to see just about everything.”

Self-parking vehicles are likely to come out first; the technology helps drivers to parallel park. Along those lines, the latest technology is laser-controlled cruise control, John Miller says. A sensor in the front bumper keeps the driver’s car in sync with the car in front of them, driving as fast as the other car but braking automatically if the other car brakes, and also maintaining a set speed even if the car ahead speeds up too much.

“The idea is to take out the human element,” John Miller says. There is also safety technology where, if the driver is drifting out of his or her lane, the system will help bring the car back in.

Another technology aspect can help drivers avoid obstacles and oncoming cars. It can even brake automatically if the car is headed toward a solid object such as a brick wall. There are back-up indicators, as well as blind spot warnings. “So if there is a car in your blind spot and you are changing lanes, the new technology will warn you,” Jeff Miller says.

Technology is slowly integrating the cell phone. For example, if the car’s check-engine light comes on, the system will automatically call the car care center, Jeff Miller says. Microsoft and Apple are both getting more into the auto industry, he adds.

Some of the new auto technology is simply for entertainment or convenience.

Toyota has come out with Entune, which is a multi-media center that piggy-backs onto cell phone data. “There are two schools of thought on this,” John Miller says. “There is the making more of your vehicle’ concept and then there is the whole ‘distracted driver issue’—drivers doing a Bing or Google search while driving on the freeway at 80 miles per hour. How much is just too much? However, many car technologies have a fail-safe mechanism that prevents drivers from accessing the technology while driving.”

Hybrid or Fully Electric?

Fuel efficiency is also a hot topic right now and will continue to be an issue of concern for auto owners. Electric cars were thought to be the solution, but the Millers say they believe the concept has fizzled out, while hybrid cars—which combine electric and fuel for power—are still in heavy demand.

The challenge with electric cars is the lack of existing sites to power up the car, which has a range of approximately 100 miles. “There is no infrastructure to support the electric car—you can’t charge it everywhere,” Jeff Miller says.

The Prius Plug-In gives drivers a limited range of electric-only driving. It’s the same Prius powertrain that gives drivers close to 50 miles per gallon in gas but also can give the driver 20 to 30 miles of straight electric only, John Miller says.

Hydrogen-fueled cars are expected to continue, but the challenge is to meet the desires of drivers. “If you can’t build cars that people want, then it’s never going to work,” Jeff Miller says. “People still want big cars—SUVs—but they also want to save gas mileage and protect the environment.”

Car design and color is continuously changing as well. The hybrid cars have come out with some “wild and crazy colors, such as lime green, so as to differentiate” from the mainstream models, Jeff Miller says.

Overall, auto owners should be prepared for amazing and exciting innovations for their vehicles in the next couple of decades. “The world is going to evolve fairly quickly in the next 20 years. It’s an exciting time for the auto industry,” John Miller says.

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