Cars of the future will be computers on wheels

ByABC News
May 10, 2012, 11:27 PM

HANOVER, Germany -- A handful of people have seen the car of the near-future, and it looks suspiciously like a lunar land rover. Or a plane. Or a driverless vehicle. Take your choice.

At auto shows and tech conferences around the globe, prototypes of whiz-bang cars offer a visual narrative into what to expect on the nation's streets a decade from now. Some already are in production; others will be shortly, carmakers say. But in technology laboratories and engineering facilities worldwide, the imaginings don't stop there.

Think 15 to 20 years out.

By 2030, city streets will teem with small, driverless cars whose wireless capabilities direct traffic flow smoothly, rendering traffic lights unnecessary, car designers and automotive visionaries say. The cars themselves will be made of collapsible, lightweight material, allowing them to be tucked into the tiniest parking crevices.

Cloud computing will enable riders to work or play games during their commutes while listening to their favorite music as chosen by the car, says Kevin Dallas, general manager of Microsoft Windows Embedded. The software giant is working with Ford, BMW and others to make vehicles more connected.

For years, we've heard predictions about the cars of the future and seen them depicted in pop culture from the writings of Jules Verne to TV's The Jetsons. But advances in wireless communications and battery technology have made what once was a far-off idea a near-reality, says Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst at market researcher IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

Changes in transportation infrastructure and policy, coupled with technology advances, could make this all possible in the not-too-distant future, say auto executives, analysts and scientists.

Within 20 years, not as many people will own cars. In fact, they will share them, Boyadjis predicts.

The future took a step closer to reality this year when Nevada became the first place anywhere to issue license plates to self-driving cars, allowing Google, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors to further develop and refine robo-driving on the state's 25,000 miles of road.

The wild card is how humans will react.

"It will be a different kind of automotive experience," Boyadjis says. "But for it to take shape, we need a seismic change in people's attitudes toward cars … and early adoption of technology (by) consumers, automakers and infrastructure."

There are indications that as an array of personal and information technology enters the mainstream in cars — from parking-assist aids to navigation systems to voice control — drivers are slowly warming to the idea of letting the car do more on its own. Indeed, many drivers say they would pay $3,000 for self-driving technology, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

Several recent shows offer glimpses into where cars are headed:

•EO. At the CeBit computer-electronics show in Hanover in March, the blue, egg-shaped electric car was the head-turner as part of a futuristic exhibit. "It is half-robot, half-car," says Benjamin Girault, a researcher at DFKI, a research institute that has developed small robots and an underwater rover. In several years, it could be on city streets, outfitted with cameras and lasers, and be controlled remotely, if necessary. An extension added to the back of the car would double the number of passengers, to four.