BBC News

Talking cars like Knight Rider's could go on sale soon

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Geneva motor show

image captionYou may soon own a talking car, though the open shirt will be optional

Remember the Knight Rider car? The one declaring "scanner indicating danger ahead", "your reflexes are slow" or "I shall activate a turbo-boost"?

A similarly futuristic car might hit the road sooner than you think, according to Klaus Draeger, BMW's head of research and development.

Many cars are already connected to computer systems, making drivers' and passengers' lives both more comfortable and safer.

But until now they have mainly been receiving information, so as yet they are not really engaging in dialogues, Mr Draeger says.

BMW's so-called Connected Drive concept, currently on show at the Geneva motor show, aims to change that.

Rain ahead?

BMW's system brings together more than 50 communication functions.

They include sophisticated satellite navigation systems and a self-drive technology that helps the car move safely from the fast lane to the hard shoulder on its own if the driver has a heart attack.

There are also more trivial technologies such as wireless links between the car's entertainment systems and home computers.

image captionCars that communicate with the world around them are safer, more entertaining and more comfortable.

"It's the way you get information into and out of the the car and what you can do with the information that is important," says Mr Draeger.

In future, your car will not only spot motorway traffic jams, it will also be able to calculate whether any delays on alternative routes make them even slower. And then the car will recommend whether or not you should get off the motorway.

The system will be helped by information received from other cars, which will be sending information about the road ahead back to you.

For instance, if drivers of other cars are suddenly using their window wipers and their brakes, the system might conclude that the road they are driving on is wet and slippery and perhaps that visibility is reduced. It will then warn you, before communicating your response to other system users.

Such information should help business travellers cut journey times whilst at the same time making them both safer and more comfortable.

"So whereas satellite navigation may initially be about comfort and efficiency, once moving about, once it starts identifying obstacles, it becomes a safety issue as well," reasons Mr Draeger.

Business tool

Other features include close connectivity between a driver's desktop computer and the computer in the car.

If you schedule a meeting in the office, the information can be sent directly to your car.

Directions will be automatically entered into the satnav. Nearby hotels will be identified and an electronic booking can be made from the car. An electronic diary in the car can alert you to make sure you leave on time to be at the appointment as scheduled.

The car will also synchronise your emails, which can be read out aloud, or let you respond to Facebook messages while waiting for traffic lights to turn green.

Parking the car can be done with the assistance of a bird's-eye view of the car on a screen - or remotely, while you are standing outside the car watching it glide into a parking space.

Modern luxury

Other carmakers are also making their cars more intuitive and better connected with the world around them.

Audi's latest satnav system is linked to the internet, providing "real-time traffic information, traffic-influenced turn-by-turn directions and alerts to accidents and other incidents along their route".

Recent models from Mercedes will tell you when you seem tired and when the car in front is slowing down. Volvo, meanwhile, is trying to make its cars' electronics easier to understand and use.

image captionDon't talk and drive. Let the car do it for you.

"To have a machine that is easy to control, like an iPhone or an iPad, is luxury these days," says Volvo Cars' chief executive Stefan Jacoby

"This is an area where we can create luxury in the premium segment. I think there will be more intelligent choices."

Safety implications

The list of applications goes on and on and over time it will get even longer, according to Tim Routsis, chief executive of engineering company Cosworth.

"The younger generation is always connected when they are at home or in the office, and increasingly they want the same in their cars," he says.

Giving them what they want is not an easy task, however, not least because of the safety implications of introducing some of these technologies to drivers whose attention should be on the road.

Some applications may improve safety, but others may distract, so a major challenge will relate to how and when communication should take place.

Solutions will need to become much more sophisticated than they are today, Mr Routsis reasons.

For instance, a blanket ban on reprogramming satnavs or writing Twitter messages whilst the car is in motion will be irritating for a passenger who should be able to engage with the electronics without disturbing the driver.

"So to facilitate this, the system will need to detect whether it is the driver or the passenger using the system," he says.

Driving buying decisions

Hence, as the list of applications gets longer, so does the list of challenges facing the industry, Mr Routsis believes.

And yet, he expects carmakers to do all it can to deliver.

"In-car technologies offer new points of differentiation," he continues.

"And increasingly, it's starting to drive buying decisions."