Smarter cars coming our way

For the automotive industry, 2017 is a big one for new technology and features. It’s amazing what the designers and techno-whizzes have come up with.

All the latest went on show early in the year, where Las Vegas’s Consumer Electronics Show gets everyone buzzing, followed by the dazzling North American Auto Show in Detroit.

Here are some of the things set to influence cars we’ll be driving soon.

Health conscious

Staying calm in the car is a theme for motoring in 2017 and something that car makers are taking more seriously. Some manufacturers made a big show of it at CES.

Mercedes-Benz flagged its intention to collect data on its vehicles’ occupants and use it to adjust existing functions within the vehicle to improve the driver’s mood. It might be as simple as choosing a more soothing route via the sat-nav or as involved as selecting a specific massage function for the seats, accompanied by relaxing music.

Hyundai also showed its Healthcare Cockpit, which uses biometric sensors to monitor the driver’s mood. By adjusting things such as the cabin’s scent, temperature, sound and lighting – even the driver’s seating position – short bursts of calming or alert elements can alter the driver’s mental state. Hyundai says that as well as reducing stress, it can also improve safety through reducing fatigue and increasing alertness.

Gesture control

Gesture control is the buzz phrase in how cars of the future will be operated.

While we’ve already got basic gesture control features in cars today – the most simple of which is waving your foot under the bumper to open the tailgate – expect plenty more of them.

BMW’s HoloActive Touch technology brings the dashboard even closer to the driver. It allows you to control some car functions by touching a virtual floating graphic in front of you, and the system even gives your finger a slight vibration to confirm the touch.

Component supplier Bosch displayed similar technology with its Ultrahaptics interior concept shown at CES.

Sporty practicality

Just as Holden and Ford shift away from rear-wheel-drive four-door cars, Kia is set to partially fill the void.

The Stinger revealed at Detroit not only showcased bold new large car styling but also a new architecture that sends twin-turbo-charged power to the rear wheels.

To be shared with Hyundai’s upcoming Genesis luxury brand, the new underpinnings show there is interest yet in affordable sports sedans. Stinger arrives in Australia in late 2017.

All electric

If you want proof of how fast the electrification trend is catching on, look no further than Ford’s announcement that it would produce a hybrid version of its Mustang sports car. Expected to use a four-cylinder engine and electric motors, the Mustang Hybrid is due by 2020 and will deliver what Ford says is V8 performance.

Chevrolet, the sister brand to Holden, recently began selling the Bolt in the US. It’s a compact all-electric hatchback that can drive almost 400km between charges and costs about the same as a Commodore V8.

Volkswagen, eager to deflect attention from its diesel emissions scandal, is planning a family of electric vehicles, showcased late last year with the Golf-sized I.D. This year in Detroit, it showed off the I.D. Buzz, an all-electric take on the iconic Kombi. The retro-infused van remains a concept for now but could go in to production early in the next decade.

How electric cars are charged also looks set to change. At CES, Ford announced plans to follow others, including Mercedes-Benz, with induction charging, whereby the car charges wirelessly by stopping over a dedicated mat.

SUVs

The SUV trend shows no signs of slowing, with manufacturers eager to take advantage of unprecedented demand and plug any perceived hole – or create new niches along the way.

While Ford had nothing to show, it confirmed it would revive the iconic Bronco nameplate with a competent off-roader based on the architecture of the Australian-developed Ranger ute. Expect the new Bronco to have five doors and some retro-infused styling when it arrives around 2020.

Audi also flagged its intention to expand its SUV range with the Q8 concept, a sleeker take on the Q7 that could take the fight to Range Rover in the luxury end of the off-road segment.

Self-driving cars

The race is on to create cars that can replace humans in the driver’s seat. And each motor show advances the cause with crash avoidance and driver assist technologies designed to make driving less of a chore.

Ford announced it would have cars without pedals or a steering wheel on the road by 2021. Don’t expect them in Australia, though, because the vehicles will initially be used for ride sharing and other applications in a geo-fenced area, which has been meticulously mapped. 

Google’s self-driving car program, called Waymo, showed the next step in its partnership with Fiat Chrysler with a people-mover loaded with cameras and sensors, something that will soon hit the road as the next step in the company’s driverless development.

Written by Toby Hagon
February 21, 2017