Eventually, all new cars will come equipped with radar, cameras and other sensors to detect and avoid imminent crashes.
Early versions are already saving lives on models from manufacturers such as Ford, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and others. These systems recognize when vehicles ahead come to a sudden stop and apply the brakes if the car's driver fails to react in time. Future versions will take over accelerating and braking in stop-and-go traffic on congested highways.
More Help at Your Fingertips
Today's car buyers have grown accustomed to snazzy digital displays that let them control their stereos, dial their smart phones and access GPS navigation.
But there's more to come. Before long, vehicle infotainment systems will suggest alternative routes to avoid traffic snarls and alert drivers to available parking spaces at their destinations.
Mercedes' latest system, called Mbrace2, will let drivers pull up a picture of their destination from Google Street View — handy when traveling somewhere you haven't been before. It debuts in 2013 models.
Ford is even working on "biometric stress detectors" to measure a driver's vital signs, such as pulse and breathing rate. They'll determine whether a driver is too preoccupied with challenging road conditions to listen to a text or make a phone call, and accordingly allow or block such electronic distractions.
Sometime during the next decade, look for cars to drive themselves, at least some of the time. It sounds far-fetched, but automakers and engineers are proving they can pull it off. Note that tech giant Google already operates driverless cars -- modified Toyota Prius hybrids -- on the roads around its corporate headquarters in California. In more than two years, the cars have clocked tens of thousands of accident-free miles.
The next wave of in-car Internet technology will also go a long way toward addressing concerns about drivers' loss of attentiveness while monitoring Twitter and Facebook in their cars. Wi-Fi will enable future cars to communicate with one another, signaling their locations, speeds and projected paths.
Combined with increasingly sophisticated electronic driving aids, car-to-car communications will allow autos to take over more and more functions, freeing drivers to talk, text and go online.
Drive-by Discounts from the Doughnut Shop
As more and more cars are connected to the Internet along with having the capability to signal their location and destination, marketers will gain a whole new way of reaching drivers with highly customized ads -- say a coupon for the doughnut shop you'll be passing in five minutes during your morning commute.
Bill Visnic, senior editor and longtime auto industry observer at Edmunds.com, muses that it could be like "Facebooking your travel plans," and savvy Web advertisers are sure to take advantage. It's no coincidence that Google, the biggest player in Web-based marketing, is branching out into driverless cars.