Connectivity is the new frontier of automotive innovation. If you could slap wheels on a smartphone, you'd have a vision of the car of the future. In fact, much of that "app"-titude is coming on line now.
? Ford and Audi, for example, are testing systems that allow cars to communicate with each other, exchanging highway condition info to help drivers avoid accidents and traffic jams.
"Most of it is pretty proven technology already, so hopefully there is not a downside of 'another thing to go wrong,'" says Todd Turner, president of Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based automotive consulting company, Car Concepts, Inc. Turner expects even more of this "connectivity" down the line.
Already, Audi offers an advanced technology package on some models that turns the car into a rolling Internet connection-with Wi- Fi service for up to eight devices, including tablets, laptops and phones.
Such devices are also adding flexibility to car design. Volkswagen has shown a concept electric Microbus that uses a removable iPad as a multifunction touchscreen on the dashboard, controlling such functions as a Bluetooth hands-free telephone, a navigation system-even climate control and hazard lights. When you lock up the bus, the iPad goes with you. At home, you can upload a trip route with stopping points and more.
"Configurability will be key," says Dan Hall, vice president of AutoPacific, an automotive market research firm in Tustin, Calif.
Most gasoline-electric hybrids and electric cars, including the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, allow users to reconfigure the gauge array. You can't get rid of the speedometer, but you can set the gauges that are more relevant to you-such as driving range or various aspects of the Eco Meter, which monitors driving efficiency and "coaches" the driver for more fuel savings.
Nearly all manufacturers have or will debut voice-activated controls for just about every function from interior temperature to selecting a playlist.
Hyundai has just launched what it calls Blue Link, a voice-activated system for navigation, infotainment, safety, vehicle diagnostics and more. It's not unlike Ford Motor Co.'s Sync system or General Motors' OnStar, but Blue Link also has some interesting apps.
Want to restrict the cruising radius of that teen driver? Activate the Geo Fence, which monitors vehicle movement in and out of pre-defined regions, such as known hangouts for the bad boyfriend or girlfriend. When the vehicle enters or leaves a designated region, the site administrator (i.e., the person making the car payments) is notified by e-mail, text message or automated phone message. There's also a curfew monitor.
Still down the road for motorists is Biometrics-the science that analyzes such human features as fingerprints, eyes and voice for authentication purposes. Just think how simple and freeing it would be to go keyless and be able to unlock and start your car with the touch of a finger.
"Right now, it's just too futuristic for most people to grasp," says AutoPacific's Hall.
In the meantime, use that idle finger to gesture at drivers who are playing with their smartphones instead of watching the road.
-Mark Maynard Mark Maynard is automotive editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has been writing about cars since 1994 and hosts a weekly Internet radio show, Maynard's Garage, at SignOn-WSRadio.com. See what he's driving this week at facebook.com/MaynardsGarage.