The connected cars of the future

Last updated: 02 April 2015

A series of impressive developments at this year’s Geneva Motor Show made clear that connected cars could be the next great wave of innovation, disrupting the way we travel in the years ahead in the same way smartphones transformed the way we communicate today.

A recent study found that 43% of automotive companies from across Europe are already producing connected cars, whilst a further 53% are well into their R&D, design and implementation, and testing phases. Equally importantly, there has been swift acceptance of connected cars in political spheres, with Germany welcoming autonomous vehicles to the autobahn and the UK’s Department for Transport revealing that the roads of the future will be IoT highways full of sensors, robots and connected cars.

With this in mind, we’ve assessed some of the key themes from the connected car industry, and explored what this means for the roads in the future.

Autonomous cars and assisted driving

tesla autonomous car

The path to truly autonomous cars will be made up of innovative iterations like emergency autonomous braking, something that is already widely available, like Volvo’s City Safety and Ford’s Active City Stop. Ford has recently announced it will be releasing a car that can read road signs and adjust its speed to ensure the vehicle is not driving too fast, and if something ever does go wrong, cars will be able to directly alert the emergency services.

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, has indicated that the next stage will be for technology to take control of the car in motorway traffic jams, keeping pace with the car in front and even changing lanes if instructed to do so by the driver. While this level of complexity is some years out, the driverless car era has already been ignited. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, announced that Tesla’s Model S Sedans will receive a software update allowing them to drive themselves. In addition to autonomously driving itself on highways, the car will be able to be summoned via smartphone and park itself in your garage. Of course, the law still needs to catch up to this particular innovation…

Once autonomous cars are available, they will fundamentally change how our vehicles are designed. Longstanding norms like forward-facing seats, mirrors, pedals, and even steering wheels will no longer be necessary, and automakers will be free to pursue revolutionary ideas. Mercedes-Benz, for example, unveiled its plans at CES to create luxury self-driving cars, with the F 015 prototype aiming to turn connected cars into “mobile living rooms”. And what’s a living room without high speed internet connectivity and high quality entertainment? By offering seats that swivel around and 4K touch screens, our expectations of road transportation may never be the same.

Advanced in-car control systems

in car control systems

Multiple automakers have announced plans to include gesture controls that let the driver open windows or change menus on the dashboard screen via a swipe of a hand, but none have succeeded quite like the Volkswagen Golf R Touch. Volkswagen’s goal was to totally eliminate the physical switches, replacing all of the infotainment, climate and environment controls with proximity-aware capacitive systems and gesture controls. This included an entirely new menu and screen layout, with graphics, tiles and touch gestures similar to those found on the tablets and smart phones for a simple user experience.

Toyota’s FV2 concept car has taken the idea of in-car control to an entirely new level. Gone are the pedals and incredibly the steering wheel, and in their place the driver just shifts his or her weight, forward or backward to accelerate and decelerate, and left or right to turn. What’s more, the FV2 is packed with artificial intelligence. Using connections made with other vehicles and the surrounding highway infrastructure, the FV2 can update the driver on road conditions and safety alerts, through its augmented-reality windscreen that uses facial recognition commands. While it’s only a concept car, it is an insight into how creatively automakers are thinking about the future.

Underpinning both these trends is high speed connectivity; smart cars need the support of wider, distributed data and intelligence systems guiding their action, providing everything from real-time traffic data to connectivity into the emergency services. If the speed with which smartphones has disrupted the communications market has given us anything to go by, the exciting innovations which are already being built into this year’s concepts and pioneering connected cars will become mainstream sooner than we think.