Audi carsVolkswagen used to put a flower vase in the dashboard of every Beetle. Then Volkswagen realized that drivers cared more for power than pollination, and the flower disappeared.

Many innovations, like solar highways and Volkswagen’s vase, were born in the boardroom and will likely die in the boardroom. Only a few ideas survive: head-up displays, auto-dimming windshields, etc. Come tomorrow, which ideas will glow and which will dim?

Cars Gain Egos, Discard Humans
The future has fistfuls of self-governing gadgets: snooze control, lane-departure prevention, headlight cornering, adaptive cruise control and parallel parking assist. Haptic feedback, such as buzzing seat bottoms and blinking dashboard lights, tells the driver to peel an eye.

The pinnacle of autonomous robotics is the self-driving car. Four states allow them. Fifty-six percent of Americans look favorably upon them. And Google made one. Google’s abracadabra is LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a computer vision system that scouts the road ahead, separates pedestrians from road kill, and feeds the information into a computer. However, Google’s prototype can only drive up to 25 mph and has no stereo, which sounds more like 1920 than 2020.

Beam Me Up, Ford
Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication (V2V) allows cars to converse via a local WiFi networks. Each vehicle, equipped with a GPS, beams out its position and velocity to other cars. Cars can avoid each other even when their humans fail to notice. In 2010, NHTSA recommended that mandating V2V would reduce target collisions by 79 percent. Acting Administrator David Friedman said, “[It’s] similar to the introduction of standards for seat belts, airbags, and electronic stability control technology.” Ford has been running tests in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and hopes to implement its technology soon.

A Penny Earned
The war for fuel economy is being won in nickels and dimes, fought by forced induction, auto stop/start, cylinder deactivation, direct fuel injection, underbody panels and electric steering. Yet as President Obama’s 54.5 mpg CAFÉ mandate edges ever closer, engineers look to bigger breakthroughs. The Holy Grail: lightweight cars. Some plan to swap steel for aluminum and magnesium, much to the delight of Alcoa. Ferrari and Lamborghini use pricey carbon fiber. Perhaps the most surprising contestant is bamboo. According to BBC Autos, “Surfboard manufacturer Gary [said] he felt bamboo had the potential to replace carbon fiber in automotive applications. Young’s surfboards use a special bamboo weave combined with an epoxy coating that has proven to be strong and light, but not brittle.” Is it so surprising? After all, Morgan roadsters still use ash frames.

Stop, Drop & Roll
Mercedes’ Magic Body Control is the harbinger of fully predictive suspensions. It tracks the road 20 meters ahead, judging obstacles, gradient and moisture, and adjusts damping rates accordingly. Like the head of a chicken, the car remains blissfully unaware of potholes and fissures. Audi is working on a similar suspension that counteracts lateral forces, mutes speed bumps and practically cooks eggs Benedict.

Cars that talk, drive and tiptoe – who says the future needs drivers?