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IBM predicts big changes in car technology

The way you drive will be dramatically different in five years, according to IBM, with innovation normally reserved for the likes of Batman and James Bond imminent.
GM’s Vehicle-To-Vehicle (V2V) technology uses a computer chip, an antenna and GPS technology to inform drivers of what’s going on in every direction.
GM’s Vehicle-To-Vehicle (V2V) technology uses a computer chip, an antenna and GPS technology to inform drivers of what’s going on in every direction.General Motors
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Imagine this futuristic scenario: As you commute into New York, the Holland Tunnel gives you a report on exactly how long your vehicle will be inching along before reaching the city.

Even better, it suggests you switch to the Lincoln Tunnel instead, because that would be faster given the current vehicle volume. It shows you live traffic images to help you make the best choice.

This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The technology that would allow even relics like the Holland and Lincoln tunnels to offer such cutting-edge navigation services already exists.

“In New York and other cities that use EZPass, tons of traffic data is being collected through automated recognition technology, and until now we weren’t even aware of the possibility of using it as a predictive traffic measure,” says Francoise Legoues, an engineer at International Business Machines Corp. in Armonk, N.Y.

So things are about to change.

IBM anticipates that the way you drive will be dramatically different in five years. The tech giant made the bold prediction in its second annual “Five in Five” forecast, its list of five ways that technology will change people’s lives over the next five years.

According to IBM’s researchers, automotive innovation normally reserved for the likes of Batman and James Bond is imminent. They envision automated services to find the cheapest gas, global positioning technology that allows traffic jams to be avoided, Web-enabled evasive action to avoid accidents, and the use of sophisticated analytics to ease congestion across entire cities.

Such advancements are already in use by early adopters.

In Singapore, a nationwide initiative employs sensors and cameras to help measure and predict the flow of vehicles, with traffic lights and other roadway signals being adjusted as a result.

In Stockholm, a “virtual toll booth” electronically tracks vehicles entering the city during peak hours or in high congestion areas, then registers a fee associated with that vehicle. A sensor is in each vehicle, much like the EZPass system used in New York. However, one difference is that the motorist pays the fee later, either online or at participating convenience stores. “That’s a result of not just being able to collect data, but react to it,” Legoues says.

IBM’s predictions illustrate how technological innovation is often more about linking and exploiting existing technology than inventing something completely new.

“We are already able to get all of the data that you need to navigate smoothly, the traffic conditions, determining where streetlights are, the conditions of roads, where there’s roadwork, the condition of the car, everything,” Legoues says. “What’s new is that we now have the ability to deliver that data and interface with the data in a manner that makes sense for a specific need at a specific time.”

Public projects like the ones in Singapore and Stockholm will likely be slow to emerge in the United States in part because of privacy concerns and politics. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to use traffic surveillance as part of a congestion management plan was given a resounding raspberry by other politicians earlier this year.

But for car buyers, early versions of many such tools to make driving easier are in the works. IBM is testing what it calls an “artificial passenger,” a voice-enabled system that performs hands-free functions like turning on the radio, switching stations, making cell phone calls, and giving updates on the condition of the car, external hazards, or airport delays. Many luxury automakers already offer similar features on some of their vehicles.

IBM is also testing a program that uses sensor networks, satellites, and WiMax (like long-range wi-fi) to send signals to drivers warning of black ice ahead or a speeding car around the corner, with the vehicle automatically slowing as a result.

Ford, whose Sync product connects to external devices via Bluetooth and USB ports, will include a feature that links to driver-centric content from satellite radio firm Sirius in some 2009 models, including the 2009 Lincoln MKS. The information will include real-time traffic, weather, the location of the cheapest local gas station, and other content. “Beyond music, you’ll be able to get information that’s relevant to you while you’re in your car,” says Mark Schirmer, Ford’s communications director.

Rival General Motors’ OnStar subsidiary made several improvements to its service this year. One upgrade, called “stolen vehicle slowdown,” enables law enforcement to signal stolen vehicles and bring them to a stop remotely. Its “advanced automatic crash notification” assesses the severity of a collision and automatically alerts the appropriate emergency agencies to respond to the scene.

“Our research has always told us that of all the kinds of services that you could think of embedding into an automobile, safety and security have by far the highest level of interest," says Chet Huber, president of OnStar. “Other services, like connecting to the Internet or email from your car, don't even come close to safety and security.”

Huber says OnStar is also improving its “turn-by-turn navigation” to allow a driver to enter a destination via Mapquest and have those directions downloaded to their vehicle.

Even more improvements are being planned. OnStar has extended its agreement with Airbiquity, a wireless data transmission firm in Seattle. Airbiquity is developing a series of wireless products that better enable GM to offer roadside assistance, navigation, vehicle diagnostics, and security services.

Auto analysts say the ultimate catalyst for the future will be greater intelligence in global positioning systems that will springboard beyond the current function. “Today, GPS tells you how to get to a destination as fast as possible,” says Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for IRN Inc., an automotive consulting firm in Grand Rapids, Mich. “But it doesn’t factor in construction or traffic, both of which should reroute you. The new systems in development go far beyond that.”

In addition to the advancements for motorists, IBM’s “Five in Five” pontificates on the dramatic “greening” of home appliances during the next five years, vast advancements in medical diagnostics and treatment, more readily available information on where food comes from and how it is processed, and the widespread use of cell phones as a financial portal to banks, brokerage firms, and shopping services.