What to expect in cars of tomorrow

In the 1980s television series Knight Rider, David Hasselhoff plays a crime fighter driving a talking automobile named Kitt — a black Pontiac Trans Am controlled by a computer with artificial intelligence. The show’s creator says he wanted to remake the Lone Ranger with a car.

Today, General Motors Co.’s Pontiac brand is toast. The Trans Am is a discontinued distant memory. But the idea of car as computer is only growing, with the potential to reshape the way we drive more than any other development in the near and distant future.

“The era of technology in vehicles hasn’t even come close to its high point yet,” says Warren Browne, GM’s former top executive in Russia and now a consultant based in Michigan.

The change will come in many forms. The next wave of hybrids and electric cars will be made from lighter materials. Engines will get smaller and pack more punch.

But it’s inside the cabin where the revolution will be most noticed. Drivers and passengers will be able to access more information and entertainment. And vehicles themselves will become smarter, helping drivers navigate the road in ways they can only imagine now.

Carmakers like Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are spending a lot of time and money thinking about how to incorporate next-generation mobile communications technology into their cars and trucks. They’re also trying to figure out how to respond to a demographic change of immense consequences.

Sometime over the next decade, the world’s population aged 65 and older will outnumber children under five for the first time, according to a report released in July by the U.S. census bureau. The number of seniors is growing at an average of 870,000 each month.

Many of those older people are in better health than ever before. And many will want to continue driving.

They will need help to do that, “in a sense, to keep them safe from each other,” says Joe Phillippi, 67, president of marketing research firm Auto Trends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J.

“The car is going to have to think for the driver in many instances,” Mr. Phillippi says. “I can envision [a situation where] you’re driving down a piece of road that you’re only nominally familiar with or maybe totally unfamiliar with. The GPS system knows exactly where you are on virtually any stretch of road, assuming it’s been mapped by Mapquest or Google or somebody. And it knows that it’s night, that you’re heading toward a mountain road hairpin turn, and that you’re going too fast. You know none of this. But the car suddenly starts to slow down, literally takes complete control of the vehicle away from you.”

It may sound positive, from a safety perspective. But the car taking over from the driver also has consequences that will have to be sorted out between lawmakers, insurers and manufacturers, Mr. Phillippi says. Namely, who is liable if the brakes or another vehicle system fails?

The question is not that easy to answer. Lawyers for the carmakers have argued in the past against installing far more basic things on vehicles, such as power windows that go all the way up or down in one motion, because a judge may rule the companies responsible if a passenger’s finger or a dog’s head gets pinched.

Today’s vehicles already have navigation systems that tell drivers where they are and what the traffic and weather conditions are like. They have long had advanced cruise-control systems with laser radar-guided technology that let them maintain speed and distance from other vehicles. Some, such as Toyota’s Lexus and new Prius models, also have sensors that allow them to self-park and pre-collision systems that prepare the vehicle and its occupants for impact if they sense that a crash is unavoidable.

Now, Toyota has begun introducing low-speed cruise control in Japan, part of the $1-million an hour it invests in research and development. Stephen Beatty, managing director of Toyota Canada Inc., says the ultimate aim is to move from the car as autonomous tank (a heavy vehicle protecting passengers and operating independently of other vehicles) to the car as a sort of communal calculator (avoiding trouble in the first place by talking to other cars and knowing where it is in relation to them).

“We talk about intelligent transportation and this notion of cars running in almost automated trains down heavy corridor routes [while] being under full independent control when you break away from those routes,” Mr. Beatty says.

Toyota has already demonstrated self-driving cars in Japan and California. They work best on dedicated roadways where all the vehicles have similar capability, Mr. Beatty says, such as Ottawa’s reserved-lane transit system.

“You don’t want dumb cars mixing with intelligent cars. That’s kind of a recipe for unintended things to happen. [So it’s going to be a situation where] you’re introducing systems over time, making cars smarter and smarter until the old ones go away or are regulated away and this new breed of vehicle takes over.”

The new breed of vehicle will also accommodate more multimedia technology in the future, including wireless Internet access and streaming audio and video on flat screens, industry experts say. The back seat could conceivably become a complete office for the executive, or an entertainment-filled bubble for the leisure passenger.

“The vehicle, it’s still going to have four wheels. And it’s still going to have, for the most part, an internal-combustion engine,” says Erich Merkle, an independent analyst with autoconomy.com.But the way that you interface with it “will be remarkably different than what we see on the road today…. Anything that you can get on the Web, you’ll be able to get through your vehicle.”

But even that increased connectivity may generate its own set of problems. For example, more electronics may mean more volatility in vehicle prices as older technologies get replaced by new ones.

The Futurist magazine, a U.S. bimonthly that this year published articles by NASA chief research scientist Dennis Bushnell among other thinkers, offers a theory that by 2016, 40% of a car’s initial purchase price will be comprised of electronics. That compares to less than 20% in 2007 and just 5% in 1985, it says.

The entire value of the car will be pulled along by the 40% of it that undergoes rapid price declines, the theory goes. Total car depreciation will occur at a faster rate of up to 20% a year for the first five years.

“This is a natural progression of the impact of computing,” the magazine predicts. “Wealthier consumers are increasingly buying new cars as ‘upgrades’ to replace models with obsolete technologies after five to seven years, much as they would upgrade a game console.”

Mr. Browne foresees a greater divide looming between pricier vehicles loaded with technology and basic models for people who just want a cheap way to get around.

“There’s always going to be room for a car $15,000 and under,” he concludes. “No matter what happens on that car of the future, the technology and the interesting features etc., there’s always going to be a segment of buyers for which affordability is the paramount thing.”