• Image Credit: Visteon


In the auto industry, one breath-taking technological advance has been following another lately. Innovations like adaptive headlights, that turn as your car moves around a curve, and adaptive cruise control, to keep your car at a safe following distance from the vehicle ahead, are transforming the driving experience.

But some of the newest, coolest features aren't yet for sale. These are the trick tech developments that are waiting for their shot at the big time. Some are scheduled for a future vehicle but the details are still shrouded in secrecy, while others just haven't been given the green light. Here are our top five.

  • Image Credit: Audi

Automatic Braking

If there is any driving situation when you need superhuman strength, it is when you are careening toward a nearly certain collision. Thus German technology firm Bosch has contrived a way to put some extra muscle into your braking the split second before a crash.

This system is a technological extension of predictive braking systems that have been developed in recent years. Predictive braking alerts the driver to a collision threat and takes measures to boost the vehicle's stopping power, like decreasing the reaction time of the brakes while increasing their power. But this newest Bosch innovation takes these safeguards to the next level, automatically slamming on the brakes with the highest possible force when disaster looms, said Kay Stepper, Bosch's director of marketing and product strategy.

This system is a last resort, kicking in only after other interventions, including those enacted by the driver, have failed to avert a crash. Before activating, the system would have already warned the driver with an audible and visual alert. Then the electronic stability control system would briefly activate the brake system as another warning signal. At this point, "emergency assist" would add braking force if the driver does brake but doesn't apply enough pressure to the pedal. The system would even deploy automatic braking if the driver is slow to react and does not brake.

"If all these measures don't work, and the rear-end collision is basically unavoidable, the system would go through full automatic braking, where it would apply the brakes as hard as possible for the given situation. If the crash cannot be avoided, the system at least mitigates the consequences as much as possible," said Stepper.

Stepper describes the full-bore automatic braking at the end of the process as an industry first for Bosch. It will be available on Audi's new A8 luxury car, which is due out in June in Europe, but won't be available in the U.S. until later this year.
  • Image Credit: Mitsubishi

Driveway Power Plant

While many environmentally conscious consumers expect to be able to charge their electric vehicles in their driveway, Mitsubishi has taken the matter a step further with its PX-MiEV concept car. Its electrical system is so multi-faceted that it can even help power a home.

The PX-MiEV is classified as a plug-in hybrid, capable of running on an electric motor or its internal combustion engine. As a plug-in vehicle, it can be charged at a home outlet or a public charging station and once the batteries are full, there are plenty of alternative uses of the car's electrical system. It can power appliances during an electrical outage or augment the juice available to your home when electricity from the grid is expensive.

If you are off camping somewhere, it can power lights or an electric stove from a 100-volt AC socket in the rear cargo area. The system has a slew of practical options for the vehicle, too. If its battery charge falls to low levels when the car is stationary, the system automatically starts the engine so it can begin generating electricity again.

Users can preset the time to begin charging to take advantage of lower rates from their electric utilities at night. When they park they vehicle, they can also set the air-conditioning to start at a particular time, so the passenger compartment is already cool when they climb in later.
  • Image Credit: Visteon

Shrinking Interiors To Create More Space

For Visteon Corp., space is the final frontier and perhaps one that provides the greatest opportunity. The company has specifically targeted interior spaces as an area for radical improvements. Even as people demand more vehicle electronics, they crave more personal space in their passenger cabin, the company's consumer research has shown.

"One of the findings was that people don't feel they have enough room,” said Richard Vaughan, Visteon's manager of design and innovation. "There is more and more of a battle for the real estate to incorporate those features."

Front and side airbags naturally take up space. So do center consoles bulging with components. Elements of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system are among the chief offenders.

So, Visteon miniaturized and relocated some of these components. In its prototypes, the typical massive column of controls extending down from the dashboard has been turned into a narrow strip. That has opened up storage big enough for a large briefcase or purse. In part, this was achieved by flattening the climate control module so it could be placed under the vehicle floor pan. Vaughan said the approach requires a redesigned vehicle platform or architecture.

"It has to be in a new car that is being developed," Vaughan said. "It can't be done on an existing car."

Visteon's new C-Beyond concept vehicle demonstrates the new approach. The car also incorporates "vertical ventilation,” another space-saver. It dispenses with the vents in the dashboard, and in the process provides a solution to complaints about uneven heating and cooling. Airflow for heating and air-conditioning is routed from the headliner (ceiling) down toward each individual seat, instead of from vents on the instrument panel. Occupants can thus set temperatures for an individual seat.

"If it's a cold day, a column of warm air descends on you like a blanket," Vaughan said.
  • Image Credit: Delphi

Check Your Oil From The Couch

Is the oil level in your car down a quart? Is your gas tank nearly empty? What if you could check without even heading out to your garage? That's the idea behind a smart phone app that would give you access to an entire range of indicators. Besides oil and fuel, these might include mileage, eco-score, tire pressure, maintenance warnings and alerts.

The system, developed by auto supplier Delphi, is based on a smart key fob and an on-board module employing NFC (Near Field Communication) short-range wireless transmissions. No special fees or subscriptions would be required to use it. The readings are forwarded from a module in the car to the key fob, which in turns sends them to a smart phone. The range of the NFC system is up to 650 feet, substantially more than Bluetooth or the main wireless system used in key fobs.

Delphi expects the feature to be especially attractive to consumers anxious to monitor the energy use of their hybrid and electric vehicles. Business owners would also find it useful to get data on company fleets without leaving the office.
  • Image Credit: Fiat

Extra Cushion In A Collision

Every year, thousands of people die in side impact collisions. But now the odds for victims in similar accidents are improving, thanks to a brand-new side air bag system from TRW Automotive. It is designed to offer improved protection in "T-bone” collisions, situations where one vehicle strikes another at a 90-degree angle, often resulting in limb, chest or head injuries (and worse) at medium to high speeds.

The benefits are likely to be even greater for occupants of the subcompacts and mini-cars that Americans are expected to buy in greater numbers as gas prices climb. Developed largely by a TRW team in Europe over the last three to four years, the system, dubbed the Inward Side Impact Airbag (SIAB), is embedded in the seat cushion itself, and the air bar expands outward from a seam in it. Some of the seat foam is even used to soften the blow.

Under this system, the airbag deploys more quickly itself than it would from the seat framework or a body pillar. That is no small advantage: Unlike with frontal air bags, the occupant is often quite close to the exterior of the vehicle. The problem is all the more serious in compacts and subcompacts, since there is so little room to begin with. Since the distance is so small, the air bag has to respond quickly, in 15 to 20 milliseconds, according to the company.

"It's a good application for vehicles like the Fiat 500 that is being built in Mexico or the really small class of mini-cars,” said John Wilkerson, a TRW spokesman. "We are looking at a number of manufacturers globally.”
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