BRIMLEY, MICHIGAN—The first full day of spring dawned frigid and clear in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where weather patterns—especially the cold ones—seem to linger, but on this morning it’s not the weather we’re interested in. This remote location, more than 340 miles from Detroit, is a launching pad for the future, and I’m in Brimley to sample some of the most cutting-edge, forward-looking technologies in the car industry. Some of the items we’re seeing are more like science fiction, while some are so realistic they could show up as soon as the 2015 model year. I gulp some coffee, and slip behind the wheel of a range of prototypes equipped with features such as autonomous braking and advanced blind-spot detection.
This event, hosted by automotive supplier Continental, showcases how rapidly our driving experiences could change in the next few years. Here are some of the most intriguing technologies I tested.
Advanced Trailer Tow: This is easily the most realistic feature at this event. It extends the blind-spot detection zone of a vehicle to just beyond the back of the trailer, allowing for safer merging and passing maneuvers. This is common-sense technology that would help tired drivers who might only glance in their mirrors before changing lanes and risk crunching slower-moving vehicles lurking in the shadows. Jeremy Rooney, a Continental test engineer, says this system could be available in the next model year if an automaker orders it. Advanced Trailer Tow makes use of existing blind-spot detection hardware and requires only a software update. My advice to carmakers: make this part of a safety package on your full-size pickup, give it a catchy name like “TrailerSafe” (all rights reserved), and tell the public and the press that safety is your top priority. You could probably even charge extra for it.
Interior Camera Demonstrator/Fast-Heating Seats: I paused from our outdoor session at the track to warm up with another shot of coffee before checking out two nifty interior features. The futuristic infrared camera system monitors your line of sight to see if you’re paying attention to the road ahead and, in Continental’s prototype, sends alert vibrations through the seat. Once properly awakened, the seat has a massage function (similar to that found in some Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and Land Rover models) to keep the driver on his or her toes. The massage felt great. More intriguing, the camera system is capable of facial recognition and so could be used to set up personalized settings in the car. Brian Saloka, a senior software engineer, says you would plop down in the driver’s seat as your temperature and radio preferences are cued up. In simple terms, the car can recognize its owner, creating a relationship closer to that of a pet than an appliance. This feature could also help prevent theft, although it would have to be deactivated for valets or fleet use.
Continental is also honing synthetic leather with a conductive polymer lining. It sounds complicated, but it allowed the seat to warm up in three to five seconds during my test—like really warm up. It would be sheer genius in cold climates, which seemed like pretty much everywhere last winter. The seats, and potentially the steering wheel and gear shifter, were as warm in seconds as they would be after ten to fifteen minutes of driving. This would eliminate much of the need for the popular remote start feature installed in many cars, which is crackerjack in the winter but wastes gallons of fuel as the car idles while the driver takes a shower or eats breakfast. Since I’m in the game of naming things, let’s call this feature “FastHeat.” Naturally, it would launch on premium cars, but with any luck would trickle down so that someday all seats will warm up like this.
Adaptive Autonomous Emergency Braking: This suite of technologies has been on display at the Consumer Electronics Show, and it’s a sort of very advanced version of adaptive cruise control that uses cameras and radar to analyze whether the driver is paying attention to the road ahead. If the system detects that the driver isn’t paying attention and a collision is imminent, it automatically brakes the car. Continental proposes a light strip on the door panel, which would flash to get the driver to focus forward. Conversely, if the system believes the driver is facing ahead and paying attention, it won’t intrude with braking until the very last moment. Essentially, it gives the driver the benefit of the doubt, says test engineer Ibro Muharemovic. Perhaps the trademark should be “Focused Driver.”
Although cold, my morning in the Upper Peninsula was illuminating and left me with a sense of optimism for the future of in-car technologies. Companies like Continental are trying to make driving safer and easier without getting in the way of enthusiasts’ ability to enjoy their cars. That’s not a bad mantra for everyone in the car business.