SAN JOSE, Calif. — Carmakers are focused now on how the Internet can help drivers. But in the not-so-distant future, they will increasingly try to make cars smarter as well.
"Until now, empowering the car has not been as big an effort as empowering the driver," said Johannes Kristinsson, system architect for Ford, who is working with Google to apply Internet technology to cars. "We want to empower the cars and make that a better experience for you as a driver."
Google and Ford have teamed up to develop technology that would harness the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant's algorithms to help cars "learn" the habits of their drivers, to keep them safe or cut energy use. Imagine climbing behind the wheel of your plug-in hybrid four to eight years from now, Ford's engineers say, and pressing the "start" button at the end of the workday.
Your car, which knows where you are, what time it is and where you typically want to go at the end of the workday, might pipe up with a suggestion: "Greetings, Bob. Would you like to use a route home that optimizes battery use?"
If that sounds like your car would know too much in a slightly creepy HAL 9000 way, Ford and other manufacturers in the U.S. market are all working on advanced Wi-Fi technology that could offer major safety gains by allowing "intelligent vehicles" to automatically avoid collisions by sensing nearby cars and trucks. Citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, Ford says such a system could potentially help in 81 percent of all light-car wrecks where drivers are not otherwise impaired.
That same Wi-Fi technology could also sense a large clump of stationary vehicles far ahead on a driver's route — a traffic jam — and use the cloud to beam alternative routes to a driver before she ever hits that traffic. Those kinds of features are still years away; Sven Beiker, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, doesn't expect to see them until the start of the next decade.
K. Venkatesh Prasad, Ford's senior technical leader for vehicle design and infotronics, said the cloud could display a driver's route all the way to a final parking space, communicating with an Internet-connected parking garage that would reserve a parking stall and direct the driver to it.
And BMW, at its Mountain View tech office, has developed a prototype for a system that allows a group of motorcycle riders to track the location of everyone in the group, and to alert each other of road hazards, even when they are out of sight from one another.
One common trend appears to be that Silicon Valley, through partnerships like Ford and Google's, technology offices like BMW's and a new office opened by Volkswagen in Belmont, Calif., this spring, will have a bigger role in the automobile industry going forward.
"That's why we're in the Valley," said Robert Passaro, senior engineer in BMW's Mountain View technology office, "because this is where things happen."