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Auto Transformers: There’s more than meets the eye in today’s automotive technologies, materials, and manufacturing

Dec 27, 2016 02:25PM ● By James Houck
By James Houck

Every day we unlock new technology in the palms of our hands—literally, in the form of smartphones, tablets, and appliances. And yet, when we head out the front door in the morning, our first steps toward the work day take us to our vehicles, to technology that’s often one year, five, or, maybe, 10 years old. If you haven’t browsed a show room at a local auto dealer recently, you’ve likely been out-of-touch about just how far automotive technology has come in the past several years. From touch tech between the 10 and two positions on the steering wheel to voice-command and radar assisted, autonomous parking, there’s a bevy of features that manufacturers are building into today’s cars to both enhance the mobility experience and make it safer.

We pegged the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) for several of the most compelling industry trends; they’re an association of 12 vehicle manufacturers including BMW group, Fiat Chrysler automobiles, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America, and Volvo Car USA.

From Detroit to Silicon Valley to your next vehicle, here are a few of the trends to watch for:

Driver Assist System Technology

New driver assist systems rely on a range of technologies working together:

  • Ultrasonic sensors use high frequency sound to measure distances between objects
  • Radar determines which objects are ahead of a vehicle by sending out and then retrieving radio waves, and comparing the difference between the two
  • Lidar detects objects by enveloping an area with invisible laser light and analyzing the reflected results. When combined with cameras and other sensors, lidar can create a 3-D view of the environment around a vehicle

According to AAM these technologies enable “warning and alert systems that show visual warnings, sound alarms, or vibrate the steering wheel (or even seats) to alert the driver to take action. In emergencies, active controls actually manage vehicle systems for fractions of seconds. Driver assist systems may also be vision aides, like cameras or night vision, that help drivers better manage all kinds of situations.”

Connected Cars

Chances are, you’re already connecting your devices (à la smartphones) to your car for a range of experiences, from music playback to phone calls. This wifi technology is nearly universal in today’s cars. What’s next? Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity.

“The percentage of new passenger cars globally shipping with factory-installed telematics [has increased] from nearly 10 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2016,” according to AAM’s most recent innovation report. “Looking forward, cars may soon be ‘talking’ to each other and to the roadway. Car-to-car information sharing can alert vehicles miles behind that cars ahead have come to a halt, warning drivers to prepare to slow down. ‘Smart’ intersections will allow stop signs and traffic lights to communicate with vehicles, as sensors report if another vehicle is running a red light. Traffic lights could be synchronized to improve traffic flow—and fuel efficiency—and if there is only one vehicle sitting at a traffic light late at night, the light could be programmed to turn green.”

Nanotechnology & Nanomaterials

Aerogel -- “First developed by NASA 
for use in space suits, Aerogel is one of 
the world’s lightest materials. It’s 99.8 
percent air but it is capable of retaining 
a solid form.”

 On the heels of NASA, the auto industry tends to employ and incorporate technologies that once seemed destined only for the stars. The “nano-movement” of tech and materials has created a myriad of applications that make cars lighter, stronger, and more resistant to aesthetic damage, as well as more efficient under the hood. Today, auto manufacturers are pouring R&D dollars into the investigation and creation of nanomaterials, including:

  • Graphene: “Dubbed a ‘wonder material,’ automakers are working to utilize graphene, a form of carbon 200 times stronger than steel, but as thin as an atom. According to The Wall Street Journal, graphene ‘has ignited a global scientific gold rush, sending companies and universities racing to understand, patent, and profit from the skinnier, more glamorous cousin of ordinary pencil lead,’” reports the AAM
  • Smartphone Glass: “Some automakers are producing vehicles equipped with chemically hardened glass—or “Gorilla Glass” as it’s called in the smartphone world. The glass is approximately half the weight of conventional laminated glass
  • Aerogel: “First developed by NASA for use in space suits, Aerogel is one of the world’s lightest materials. It’s 99.8 percent air but it is capable of retaining a solid form.” According to NASA, aerogel is proven 39 times more insulating than the best fiberglass insulation and is 1,000 times less dense than glass