The Future Of Cars: Software Is The Secret To Smarter, Safer Roads

We've been driving cars on roads for over a century now, since the Ford Model T opened up travel to the middle class. But as we move well into the 21st century, we've mastered the art of our cars communicating with their drivers. Now, it's more about the cars on our roads talking to each other, and using the internet, big data and software tools to overhaul the efficiency of driving through cities.

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Welcome to Gizmodo's Future Of Cars series, presented by Ford Smart Mobility -- continuing the intersection of automobiles and technology.

Software That Interprets The Natural World For You

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Machine vision, sometimes called computer vision, is the key to the future where our cars can use high-resolution cameras and a suite of sensor hardware -- radar, ultrasonics and infrared -- to capture a human's-eye view of the world around them. Think of everything that you can see while you're driving a car: other cars, trucks, traffic lights and street signs, pedestrians, objects on the road, cyclists, potholes, road markings. After capturing all that data and interpreting it to make it machine-readable, your car then needs to use that data to detect oncoming collisions and avoid them however possible.

Sensors mean new high-tech cars can understand the world around them sometimes in more effective ways than drivers themselves can. The early collision warning systems on many cars can detect a braking vehicle faster than human reaction times allow for, and can pre-load a car's brakes or even brake completely autonomously if possible if emergency assistance is required. When our cars' sensor suites get more advanced across the board, self-parking and self-driving features will become more popular and ubiquitous and that will make our roads safer than ever before.

Software That Lets Cars Talk To Each Other On The Roads

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In-vehicle GPS receivers -- letting a car work out its location in the world, and commmunicating that information to the driver that's currently controlling it -- has been a staple of high-end cars for years, and recently we've seen it proliferate to even the most affordable and smallest city cars around. It's taken a surprisingly long time for car makers to start moving that GPS data out of the vehicles that it's attached to, though, and use the power of the internet and a critical mass of inter-connected, GPS-enabled vehicles to make traffic a thing of the past.

Combine that with the cameras and sensor suites that can determine the proximity of other cars, and use the data available over a short period of time, and you have yourself a nearly perfect, accurate-to-a-single-vehicle map of traffic within a city, which is immensely valuable if you're regularly travelling between the same points like work and home. Think Google Maps' traffic data, not only in the palm of your hand but in the dashboard of your car -- imagine your car telling you that you've got an extra five minutes to get to your destination, so you can slow down and save a bit of petrol or finish listening to the album that you have playing.

Software That Makes Cars' Engines Run More Efficiently

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As electronically-controlled, automatic and dual-clutch gearboxes become more popular, the software to control them has become more advanced. Famously, Rolls Royce's superluxury Wraith has a GPS-enabled gearbox -- the company calls it Satellite-Aided Transmission -- for its eight speed transmission which chooses the appropriate gear for the terrain ahead. Because of the massive wealth of driver data and GPS information available, it works anywhere in the world. And it's already available in signficantly less expensive cars within the BMW family, including from Mini, showing a future where all our cars understand the road ahead of them.

With turbochargers also becoming more popular to increase the efficiency of engines -- including being widely used by Ford in the Ecoboost family of engines, from the tiny 1-litre three-cylinder Ecoboost in the Fiesta to the 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged V6 monster in the new GT -- smarter engine ECUs can work with hardware and software alike to maximise efficiency without impacting performance. Match that with a smart gearbox, and you have a car that can merge from a back street onto a freeway and accelerate safely up to the necessary speed without wasting fuel, using a swathe of tricks under the hood that the average driver might never notice.


Ford's Smart Mobility plan uses innovation to take its cars to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and big data. Welcome to Tomorrow with Ford, where we share our perspective on the future of mobility and our vision to deliver innovation to millions and use mobility experiments around the world this year to test breakthrough transportation ideas.