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.
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, which designed the car, says that in the city, the car's wheels could be rotated at 90-degree angles so the vehicle could squeeze into a tight parking space. A tablet-like dashboard would show battery life, speed and energy use and would allow the driver to shift gears.
•The Transition. Terrafugia's flying car is getting closer to its maiden test flight. It is due in modest volume in 2014. You'll need a pilot's license to fly the two-seat car-plane hybrid, with foldable wings, that can fit into a garage. And, oh, about $279,000 to buy it.
Its top speeds are 70 mph on the ground and up to 115 mph in the air. About 100 people have put down $10,000 deposits to get on the waiting list for the sci-fi-like vehicle.
Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich sees the hybrid as a boon for the aviation industry and a lower-cost alternative for business people who travel frequently within a region. "You can drive in bad weather and fly in good weather," Dietrich says.
Changing on the inside
The auto industry's 127-year history is chock-full of technology innovations, beginning with steam-, electric- and gasoline-powered vehicles.
Hydraulic brakes were invented in 1919, and the first automatic transmission came three years later. If the late 1920s and 1930s were defined by Henry Ford's manufacturing achievements, they were also distinguished by the introduction of the gearbox, V-8 engine and front-wheel drive.
For decades, advances in car technology were judged largely on design. Models became smaller, sleeker — and in the case of the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, more muscular — after World War II. The modern era saw the rise of the hatchback, sedan and sport-utility vehicle. Safety features became standard in the 1960s.
Current and future models, however, are more often evaluated largely on what's inside them as they increasingly become fuel-efficient, Internet-connected computers on wheels.
"We used to talk about surfing the Internet. Soon, it just may be driving the Internet," says Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer at security-software company Bit9.
Internet-wired cars will help usher in an era of car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication, which has been discussed for years but is becoming more of a reality now that U.S. automakers have agreed on a standardized frequency on which to transmit information.
Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a version of Wi-Fi designed for automotive, is considered a cornerstone technology, but adoption will take time, analyst Boyadjis says.
In an oft-mentioned example of DSRC's potential, a car 100 feet ahead of another could alert the trailing auto about black ice on a ramp, giving the second car the chance to adjust its electronic-stability system or avoid the ramp. Car-to-grid communications, meanwhile, could record suspension activity on city roads, and relay that data to officials to fix damaged roads.
"The car is going to act like a data-collection probe," Tom Baloga, BMW's vice president of engineering, said of his company's pending car-to-car communication system. A car's location will be transmitted, anonymously, to other cars and infrastructure. The data, he says, would be used to study traffic flow, slippery conditions, bottlenecks and potholes.
Ford's Evos concept car, a four-door fastback design that is about five years away, would be a cloud-computing device on four wheels. It would link to the driver's digital records; monitor vital signs, such as indications of drowsiness; and play music based on the driver's smartphone playlist. Radar, ultrasonic sensors and cameras would all be activated by voice-recognition technology.
Chris Borroni-Bird, director of GM's advanced technology vehicle concepts, is one of the masterminds behind its Electric Networked Vehicle, or EN-V (pronounced "envy").
The mind-bending EN-V, with speeds of up to 25 mph, is envisioned by 2030 for congested cities such as Beijing and Mumbai, college campuses, tourist resorts and retirement communities. "Cities are wrestling with not just more people, but cars," Borroni-Bird says. "It is smaller (5 feet by 5 feet and about 1,000 pounds), has lower emissions and solves the challenges of gridlock through an onboard communications system tied to other vehicles and city infrastructures. The battery-powered car could be owned, shared or rented."
"The most remarkable advances will be in fuel sourcing and technology inside cars," says Alex Nunez, senior automotive editor for ConsumerSearch.com.
Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) National Laboratory, with funding from the Department of Energy, are developing battery technology that would extend the range of electric cars to 300 miles from 50 to 100 miles, says Venkat Srinivasan, manager of the Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies program.
When is it too much?
There seems to be no limit to eye-popping features in future cars.
Flexible-display technology could add new wrinkles in the form of maps, traffic patterns and ads that are projected on dashboards. GM, meanwhile, is exploring the idea of a Windows app that would let consumers draw, play games, "peek" into other locations around the globe in real time, and share music and messages with other passengers on the road.
While that may entice consumers, it worries folks at the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which recently proposed guidelines to reduce driver distraction because of the use of dashboard technologies and integrated electronic devices, including smartphones.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says, "We are in close contact with manufacturers, component suppliers, Google, Microsoft and others about this."
There are potential upsides, too. Automated cars would include technology, such as advanced cruise control and crash-imminent braking, that would minimize risk.
"If we get this right, we could eliminate risk to the road," Strickland says. NHTSA is also considering guidelines for voice-activated controls.
Privacy is another concern, with so much data floating between cars, consumers and the cloud — and the chief reason the vast majority of data would remain anonymous, Baloga says.
"Security is a big issue," auto analyst Boyadjis says. "There is a conceivable concern about terrorists hacking into an infrastructure system and intentionally crashing cars. Stolen ID is one thing. A car going 60 mph without brakes is a worry."
But that would be a rare exception in a futuristic city full of autonomous autos, say experts. Transportation by car would never be safer, they contend.
Raj Rajkumar, who heads Carnegie Mellon's GM autonomous driving lab, argues that in 15 to 20 years, when driverless vehicles become fixtures on U.S. roads, they will help dramatically reduce accidents, as well as the need for big, steel-framed cars to protect drivers.
"Most, if not all, accidents are because of human error," he says.
"People get drunk, tired, mad, text," he says. In the future, "Cars will be smaller and lighter, which means better gas mileage, a healthier environment, less traffic jams — even fewer traffic lights."
Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of electronics research and innovation, says, "Technology is important, but how do you create experiences that make (consumers') lives better? Futuristic cars could deliver, with the promise of safer roads, improved fuel efficiency and a cleaner environment."