Going forward, you may also count on your car to safeguard your kids—particularly teen drivers. Car crashes are the leading cause of teenage death, which is why there are few things harder for parents than handing over the keys to their 16-year-old. But a car wired to short-circuit new-driver mistakes and avoid accidents could alleviate some of the anxiety. In August 2011, Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center began a three-year project examining how technology can actively coach teens to become better drivers. (Check it out at toyota.com/csrc/teen-driver-coaching.html.) Within five years of its completion, teen-specific features could debut.
Up until now, tech assists have been focused on cars helping human drivers. But in sci-fi movies, the captain can put the spaceship on auto-pilot when she has more pressing matters to deal with. Cruise control may evolve toward this ideal. At first, you'll be able to let the car drive for just a few minutes in predictable situations, such as on straight stretches of highway or in bumper-to-bumper jams. Eventually, this will lead to a vehicle that can pilot itself in situations where driving is no fun, such as stop-and-go traffic, says Pom Malhotra, senior manager for Audi's Connected Vehicle Product Management. Even having the car go solo for a few minutes so that you can take a break will "absolutely happen" within five years, predicts Malhotra. Consider this: Google's self-driving cars have already logged more than 350,000 miles, mostly on California roadways.
Once self-driving vehicles are deemed roadworthy for the masses, they will probably become more like personal servants—yours could be dropping the kids at school, then returning for you, or even refueling itself while you work. And no more wasting time searching for parking, because the car can park itself or just go home. While it's not clear when all these wow-factor advances will be the norm, almost all are already technically possible, just not affordable at the consumer level. Right now that's fine. Understandably, humans have trust issues when it comes to letting machines take over. (Think The Matrix or I, Robot.) If the idea of a car that drives itself is totally off-putting, that's just because you haven't had adequate opportunity to accept and adjust. (Remember when FaceTime seemed freaky? Right. Not anymore.) Once you're on board, you can start planning the best road trip ever.
Down the Road
Advances in autopilot. We were taught to keep both hands on the wheel at all times, gripping at 10 and 2, but that won't be necessary much longer.
Meet the "You Mobile." Voice, facial or fingerprint recognition will prompt the car to adjust the driver's seat to fit your frame and tune in your favorite radio station.
A crash-free car. Using built-in wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communications, new autos will be able to sense objects within 300 meters.
Chauffeur at your service. When self-driving cars are deemed roadworthy, you should be able to program one to bring your teen daughter home by curfew.
The web superhighway. High-speed Internet connectivity will become as common as cup holders. Streaming entertainment to kids in the backseat will be second nature.
Teachable moments. Software will provide focused feedback to teen drivers, helping to build their basic skills over time.
Fuel for thought. Gas-powered cars will have plenty of company on the roads, thanks to electric vehicles, gas/electric hybrids and autos powered by propane, natural gas or hydrogen.
Dashboard 2.0. Forget about dials and knobs—the dashboard is going to look a lot like an iPad and respond to touch, voice and gestures. If you don't like the standard digital speedometer, rearrange it with a finger swipe. As with your smartphone, you'll be able to download helpful travel apps.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.