Where are all the flying cars? Most of the fantastic technologies promised by futurists and science-fiction writers during the growth of car culture in the 1950s have failed to materialize. Cars have yet to fly or, for that matter, really take control of terrestrial cruising. Many can't even manage decent fuel economy.
Indeed, technological innovation in the auto world tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. In contrast to the retail consumer-gadgets realm, auto manufacturers are wary of jumping onto new tech bandwagons where one bug-prone electronic component can hinder a brand's reputation for years.
Nevertheless, 2007 may be a banner year for the adoption and mainstreaming of new electronic technologies, from digital music to affordable drop tops. After talking about it for years, many new technologies -- from Bluetooth to hybrid engines -- are finally coming on line in large volume. Though the capabilities may be new, most developments are being made along traditional lines: powertrains and safety. But, information and entertainment -- merged and truncated by the industry into infotainment -- gear is also proliferating.
BURYING THE COST. Luxury manufacturers, in particular, tend to introduce new, advanced technologies to distinguish their flagship vehicles. Phil Magney, principal analyst with Minnetonka (Minn.)-based Telematics Research Group, which tracks the use of electronics in new cars, notes, "It's also easier to bury costs in a higher-priced vehicle."
BMW and Volvo, for example, are offering systems that give vision where drivers would otherwise not be able to see. Volvo's BLIS system, shorthand for Blindspot Information System, uses a camera in the outer mirrors to detect other vehicles entering blind spots and then alerts drivers via a small blinking light that it isn't safe to change lanes.
Right from the pages of a Tom Clancy thriller, BMW's night vision system uses a thermal imaging camera to detect human beings, animals and inanimate objects out of the driver's range of vision or the headlights' reach. Images are then beamed to the dash-mounted display, heat readings showing up in bright hues. The use of advanced infra-red technology lets BMW's system read the road about 1,000 feet in front of the car without interference from oncoming cars' headlights.
ACCIDENT PREVENTION. These types of technologies are emblematic of a new generation of systems that aims to avoid accidents. With years of innovation in passive vehicle safety -- the systems like airbags and crumple zones that protect passengers as a crash is taking place -- manufacturers have begun looking at ways to make accidents a thing of the past.
Infiniti's Lane Departure Warning System keeps vehicles from straying dangerously into the path of other vehicles, a common cause of crashes. A tiny camera mounted on the rear-view mirror reads the road ahead and, with the assistance of an onboard computer, sets of blinking lights and alarm to warn drowsy drivers they may be faltering.
Beyond safety, cars are inching closer to adopting technologies commonly used with desktop PCs. The success of Apple's ubiquitous little MP3 player has made it a lock for integration. The company now lists 20 major brands, from Ford (F) to Ferrari, that offer iPod integration, allowing drivers to navigate and play their digital music through a car's built-in audio components. "The manufacturers are jumping on that as fast as possible," says Magney.
UNDER THE HOOD. Taking the Apple (AAPL) iPod's success to heart, DaimlerChrysler (DCX) is making a MyGIG multimedia system available on Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge models. The system can store music and photos on a built-in 20-gigabyte hard drive. A high-speed USB port facilitates data transfers. The do-it-all setup also incorporates real time traffic information and voice-guided navigation.
Magney notes the move to offer the option on so wide a lineup is "risky but shrewd. It could very well be a tie-breaker in very tight markets."
Of course, engineers also look to make technological improvements under the hood. Mercedes-Benz is pushing hard to make its diesel vehicles available across the country. Old-line improvements in engine technology have all but eliminated the traditional downsides of driving a diesel, notably lack of power.
DIESEL DEVELOPMENTS. Now, to make diesels burn cleaner and produce fewer emissions, Mercedes has developed a system, dubbed BLUETEC, which thoroughly processes particulate exhaust emission. Vehicles equipped with the system are still not clean enough to meet the most stringent emissions standards in California and four other states, however. So until the company further improves the technology, BLUETEC cars will only be available in 45 states.
In the wake of the climactic success the fuel-miserly hybrid Prius, Toyota has unveiled a trio of high-end hybrid Lexus vehicles. First there was the RX sport-utility vehicle, marrying the Prius' environmental virtues with the utility or the larger form, followed by the first hybrid to crack the $50,000 barrier, the GS sports sedan. At the very top end, Lexus will sell the LS 600h L, which many say is the ultimate -- i.e. most technologically advanced -- version of its LS flagship line.
Despite such significant advancements, analysts say that individual banner technologies rarely attract new customers on their own. Instead, Magney says: "Consumers purchase these vehicles knowing they're getting a portfolio, an ensemble of very advanced technologies. But the emotional appeal is still first and foremost."