From large-scale suppliers to small, student-led research teams, groups throughout the automotive world are developing mind-boggling materials and systems to revolutionize car design. Here are seven of the most promising technologies that will likely impact how the next-generation automobile will look and work.
Thin-Film Solar Panels
Photovoltaic collectors are now so thin and flexible, they can be used as vehicle roof panels. On average about 300 watts of power could be harnessed to help take electrical strain off the infotainment system or run some of a car’s auxiliary electronic systems. The panels look pretty cool, too, like the one atop the recently resurrected Karma Revero.
Organic Light Emitting Diode, or OLED, and Transparent Thin-Film Transistor, also called T-TFT, technologies might turn your windscreen into a panoramic flat-screen display, an epicenter for an endless supply of vehicle information and entertainment. Automakers could construct an augmented reality through applications like navigation, media streaming, and even second-by-second racetrack information, such as displaying the ideal driving line on the glass, like we saw in a Jaguar Land Rover concept car from 2015.
The focus of an interior is shifting from driving responsibilities to relaxation and amusement as autonomous-driving technology advances. Not long ago Volvo showcased Concept 26, which reimagines what could be possible inside a computer-piloted vehicle. Choosing autopilot mode initiates an interior transformation, where the steering wheel recedes into the dash, the seat retreats to offer more room, and a table pivots out from a recess in the driver’s door panel as a 25-inch flat-screen simultaneously spins out from under the passenger-side dashboard.
Autonomous cars use Differential GPS to know where on the globe they are, pulses of light through LIDAR to map nearby objects, and stereo cameras to “see” the road ahead. These technologies are extremely accurate but not infallible, which is why we’ll soon need to wirelessly interconnect all road traffic. Audi is pioneering “Car to X” communication with a pilot study in Ingolstadt, Germany, implanting sensors in the road surface and into traffic signals so that cars can be aware of traffic situations en route. This will no doubt affect car design, but how? We’ll have to wait and see.
Structural Composite Batteries
A research group out of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden proposes constructing roof and door panels from lithium batteries. Carbon-fiber electrodes could offer both structural rigidity and good electron conduction, forming a load-bearing composite that can store energy. Designers would no longer be required to find room to house a large battery pack, reducing overall vehicle weight and freeing up interior volume.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving accounts for about 70,000 crashes annually. Engineers at Jaguar Land Rover are working on integrated “wellness” sensors that observe vehicle occupants’ brain activity. Using sensors embedded in the steering wheel, the car adjusts ambient lighting, audio levels, and temperature changes if it thinks you’re nodding off. Failing that, autonomous driving will take over. Breath and heart-rate sensors can also be placed inside the seats to not only monitor tiredness but also check for critical health conditions.
Ultrahaptic Gesture Control
Gesture control is already in the BMW 7 Series and will continue catalyzing change in dashboard design. With such a large selection of controls to interact with and only so many ways to gesture your hands, though, eye tracking may soon join the fray with a camera monitoring your eyes and changing the outcome of your gesture depending on where you’re looking. Porsche’s Mission E concept uses this technology, and engineers at Jaguar Land Rover hope to push the technology even further with ultrahaptics, a technology that monitors your fingers and directs ultrasonic pulses through the air toward your fingertips so you can feel vibration feedback.