Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2010s: The Decade in Review

What will driving look like in 10 years? A technological wonderland

From driver monitoring to AR-enabled heads-up displays, these are the predicted trends and technologies that will reshape the in-vehicle experience.

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KNUD VILLADSEN

In plenty of ways, driving in the year 2030 will likely look a lot like it does now. A decade is still well shy of the most ambitious projections for full-autonomy on American highways and city streets. Cars, for all their technological pageantry, will still have a steering wheel, a couple pedals, and four wheels.

But in other ways the driver's seat may well seem like a futuristic wonderland. Cars are where technologies often converge first and get their road test in the market, and with advancements in AI, voice, and mixed reality underway, automakers and retailers are looking to enhance the in-vehicle experience in some very interesting ways.

SEE: Autonomous vehicles and the enterprise (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

CBInsights recently released a report on the future of the in-car experience. It begins with a potent of what's in store:

A quick fingerprint scan unlocks your car. Once you're settled in the driver's seat, you tell your in-vehicle voice assistant to pull up directions to your destination. As you travel, turn-by-turn navigation instructions are projected onto an AR display over the windshield, and sensors track your eye and head movements to monitor for fatigue. Meanwhile, your passengers use in-vehicle screens and VR headsets to shop and play video games.

But that, in all likelihood, is just the beginning. There are all kinds of threats to automakers, which have long thrived on the bedrock idea that everyone should be a driver. Now, ride sharing is reducing the incentive for young city-dwellers to buy cars. The arrival of blockchain, connected cars, renewed interest in urban transportation systems in cities like Los Angeles, and autonomous vehicles may well erode the notion that we're a nation or a world of drivers even further. 

The automakers are fighting back by trying to optimize the driving experience. These are the technologies we're mostly likely to see in the cockpit of a car coming to a driveway near you in the next few years.

Biometric authentication

It begins with unlocking the doors to get into your sporty new sedan, but that's far from the last time your car will track you as you drive to work. The biometric technology that's already making its way into your phone and powering your fitness trackers is about to arrive in cars in a big way.

Security is one reason, and a host of biometric technologies is coming online to help get rid of one of the most bedeviling of modern inconveniences: your keys. Vehicle security is a persistent problem for automakers. Keyless ignition, it turns out, is pretty darn vulnerable, which is a problem when cars with keyless start features make up more than half of the cars sold in the US. The problem is that hackers can replicate the signal that starts those cars via keyless ignition systems. 

Fingerprint, face, or pupil authentication provides a compelling alternative. Such markers are now used for verification across a number of industries, including payments, consumer electronics, and surveillance. 

Cars are next. Hyundai is using fingerprint scanning in a couple of its models in China, allowing drivers to access the vehicle and turn on the ignition without a key. The proximity of a key fob or connected smartphone is not necessary.

An Intel-backed startup called FogHorn is building an automatic car unlocking system with OEM partner Porsche that uses an infrared camera, and evidently Apple is also working on integrating its Face ID technology with the vehicle ecosystem.

There are, of course, shortcomings with any security system. Fingerprints can be forged and systems that utilize face scanning rely on databases that can be hacked. Already, developers like Gentex are exploring more sophisticated efforts to thwart thieves, including with iris-based authentication system. A company called Aerendir is hoping to measure micro-vibrational patterns in a user's muscles to detect a unique signature that originates in the brain.

But security is only one application of biometrics. Real-time information on driver and passenger health can help identify potential medical issues before they occur. In traffic-choked LA, where I live, that could be especially helpful in reminding drivers to breathe on the 405 during the weekday rush hour. 

Ford and Daimler are developing heart monitors integrated into steering wheels. UK-based B-Secur has created technology to identify drivers using their unique heartbeat.

Voice assist

"Alexa, I need coffee NOW!"

The same voice assistant that can help you plan your day and keep track of your shopping at home is coming to your car. Advanced in-vehicle digital assistants are already letting drivers play music, search, and send text messages.

Who will the big players in the space be? According to CBInsights, probably the same players in the voice assistant game now. That's because there's real value for consumers in having the same brand of in-home voice assistant in the vehicle. Google, Apple, and Amazon are integrating their voice assistants into cars today and will likely dominate the road in the decade to come.

Amazon, which in many ways is playing catchup to Google and Apple, is now working with BMW and others to bring Alexa into the copilot seat. Alibaba's Tmall Genie Auto voice assistant will be featured in Volkswagen's Audi, Renault, and Honda vehicles.

Smaller AI and voice recognition companies are also working with OEMs to create native systems, including SoundHound, Saltlux, and Mobvoi.

Easy peazy parking

If you haven't tried autonomous parking, it's pretty great. It's also going to start coming standard on a lot more vehicles in the near future.

But the thing that's really going to change parking isn't your car's robot brain, but a connected infrastructure of IoT technology that, working in conjunction with the connected car, will help draw your attention to the nearest available spot on a city street.

That's the promise of a number of startups. Munich-based Cleverciti Systems wants to deploy sensors that can monitor all parking spaces in a city. SpotHero has a network of 6,500 garages in over 300 cities. 

Matched with your car's autonomous parking functionality, finding and fitting into a spot will be pretty seamless in the years ahead. Then again, aren't we going to miss the satisfaction of nailing a perfect parallel park after stumbling across the perfect spot?

Augmented Reality

Heads up displays are already coming into cars and trucks, even motorcycles. But they're going to be playing an even more important role in interpreting everything from data to directions in the near future.

Heads up displays project visual information onto the windshield. The idea is that you can don't need to take your eyes off the road -- you can keep your "head up" ... get it? -- to access visual data like text messages and maps. Given that nearly 400,000 accidents happen yearly from texting (and short of actually getting people to put the phone away while on the road) this is a promising development.

A product called Navion, developed by startup WayRay, offers a built-in HD camera that maps a driver's environment in order to project turn-by-turn directions and hazard warnings. 

There is one problem, however: HUDs are pretty expensive. One solution to this problem may make you cringe: Waymo has experimented with the idea of subsidizing HUDs by using the displays as billboards to advertise to drivers.

Funny ... that takes some of the shine off, doesn't it?