A year ago at this time, General Motors Corp. (GM, Detroit) was busy celebrating its centennial. Unlike other automakers that have achieved milestones lately, the company chose to focus on its future rather than its past achievements. The GMnext campaign emphasized next-generation vehicles and technology, such as fuel cells and solar cells.
But, several people I’ve talked to lately wonder what GM has in its new product pipeline after the much-anticipated Chevy Volt and the niche-market Camaro arrive in 2010. An executive at a Tier One supplier recently told me that he’s concerned because he doesn’t see too much activity when it comes to GM’s long-term product development.
During a presentation at last week’s Assembly Summit in Rosemont, IL, John McElroy, host of the popular Autoline Detroit TV and Web show, told attendees that the auto industry will have to endure its current wild ride for another year or two before things settle down. On a bright note, he highlighted three new technologies that GM engineers have been quietly developing. McElroy believes the following Big Three technologies will transform the entire auto industry during the next decade:
- Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) Communication. This technology wirelessly networks automobiles, allowing them to exchange information such as vehicle position and speed. According to McElroy, V2V will make it possible for vehicles to recognize potentially dangerous situations early, thereby helping to avoid accidents and improve traffic flow. General Motors engineers are using GPS and advanced transponder technology to create collision avoidance systems. The key difference between V2V and sensor-based systems is in the electronic communications. Today’s vision systems send out a signal that determines the speed and location of the vehicle ahead of you, and directs your car accordingly. Next-generation systems promise to be considerably better, because they’ll use transponders to “talk” with other vehicles within a quarter mile of your vehicle. This type of technology has the potential to minimize traffic jams and reduce the risk of accidents. McElroy predicts V2V technology will be a popular feature in cars within four years.
- Smart Materials. Engineers at GM’s research laboratory have been experimenting with shape memory alloys and polymers that are referred to as “smart materials.” They change their shape, strength or stiffness when heat, stress, a magnetic field or electrical voltage is introduced. Smart materials “remember” their original shape and can return to it, opening new possibilities for many movable vehicle features. McElroy says they will change the look and feel of cars, because they will allow functionality to be programmed in to enable innovative designs and improved efficiency. Actuators and sensors made from smart materials have the potential to improve vehicle performance and fuel economy, while also enabling new comfort and convenience features. These devices will eventually replace traditional motors and hydraulic devices. According to McElroy, smart materials will help reduce weight, component size and complexity, while improving design flexibility, functionality and reliability.
- Autonomous Vehicles. Today, many cars are equipped with GPS systems, adaptive cruise control, stability control systems, lane departure warning systems and other technology. The next step is to harness all those devices with an emerging family of electronic driver-assist technologies aimed at reducing driver errors that can result in crashes. According to McElroy, electronics-enabled autonomous driving is a significant technology advancement that will impact future vehicles. The technology was recently demonstrated on an unmanned Chevrolet Tahoe that successfully navigated itself through a 60-mile urban course during the U.S. Defense Department’s DARPA Urban Challenge. The autonomous vehicle was developed in collaboration with engineers at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) and Caterpillar Inc. (Peoria, IL). It uses a combination of LIDAR, radar, vision and GPS systems to “see” and “feel” the world around it. It recognizes road geometry and perceives other traffic or obstacles on the road. Using intelligent algorithms and computer software, the vehicle automatically determines where it’s safe to drive.
“Some time between 2012 and 2015, the floodgates will open [because of these technologies], creating tremendous opportunities for automakers and suppliers to make money,” predicts McElroy. “Combined with new biofuel technology, there will be a huge revolution in the industry.”