There was a time when customers had to wait for the complete redesign of a vehicle to gain the latest tech features. However, with the ever-increasing convergence of the tech and automotive industries we’ve seen the rate of change accelerate at a rapid pace, meaning the features offered in one year can sometimes be outdated by the next. Here’s a look at 10 of the top technological innovations that made headlines in 2015.
Carbon Fiber Wheels: This year we saw the first regular production car launched with wheels made purely from carbon fiber. The car was the Ford Motor Company [NYSE:F] Mustang Shelby GT350R and the carbon fiber wheels were supplied by an Australian company by the name of Carbon Revolution. Not only are the wheels stronger than regular alloys, the lighter unsprung mass (any mass not supported by the suspension) has a positive impact on response times, chassis dynamics, steering feel and ride quality. It also enables vehicles to start, stop and turn faster because of the reduced wheel rotational inertia, and the lighter unsprung mass also means suspension components don’t work as hard to keep tires in contact with the road over undulating or broken surfaces. No surprise that we hear Ford has selected carbon fiber wheels for its upcoming GT supercar.
Tesla Autopilot suite of features - with version 7.0 update
Autonomous Cars: The first car fully capable of driving itself, albeit in certain situations only, first arrived in 2013 in the form of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. However, this year we saw a huge increase in the number of firms developing the technology and some of the leaders, in this case Volvo, Mercedes and Google, step up and state that they are willing to accept responsibility for any accident caused by one of their autonomous cars. We also saw Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] take the next step by introducing autonomous lane changing for the first time, adding to the capability of autonomous highway driving first introduced with the latest S-Class from Mercedes.
2016 BMW 7-Series
Gesture Controls: Not long ago, the idea of a gesture control interface in a car might have seemed like science fiction but in 2015 it became a reality with the launch of the latest 7-Series flagship sedan from BMW. The BMW system relies on a ceiling-mounted 3D sensor to detect gestures, and then decodes different movements—such as tapping, finger rotations or a swiping movement—and performs the desired input. Right now it has just six preprogrammed finger gestures to accomplish a few select tasks, but the automaker is working on a more advanced system that can read gestures made with your full hand and allow you to control the whole infotainment system.
2016 Toyota Mirai construction at Motomachi plant
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars: Hydrogen fuel cells have been around for decades and we’ve seen many concepts and prototypes powered by the zero-emission propulsion system. While the market still determines whether fuel cell cars have a future, some automakers are taking a more aggressive approach. One is Toyota which in 2015 became the first automaker with a mass-produced fuel car with its 2016 Mirai. The compact sedan is priced from $57,500 and offers performance comparable with rival four-cylinder cars. Its fuel cell stack is located under the front seats and promises 0-60 mph acceleration in around 9.0 seconds. The driving range with a full tank of hydrogen is approximately 300 miles, with refueling times comparable to filling a gasoline- or diesel-powered car--should you be able to actually find a fuel station with hydrogen for sale.
2015 Chevrolet Corvette Performance Data Recorder (PDR)
Performance Data Recorders: Devices to store data on your driving performance, similar to the advanced telemetry systems used in motorsport for decades, is starting to appear on more and more cars. One of the best is the hard-wired system that features in the Chevrolet Corvette. It captures video and overlays important metrics like speed, RPM and steering angle and in 2015 the system was upgraded to improve the color balance and sharpness of the image on the recorded video. It also has a valet mode that can show you what really happens to your car after you hand over the keys.
BMW 1-Series Hatchback prototype with direct water injection
Water Injection Systems: Water injection systems, where a fine spray of water is sent into the engine, aren’t exactly a new technology but BMW is looking to bring it into the mainstream. The automaker already offers it in the M4 GTS special edition and has previewed it in some other models like the 1-Series Hatchback sold overseas. BMW’s system sprays water in both the intake manifold and directly into the cylinders, where it helps cool the pressurized mix of air and fuel prior to combustion. This cooling effect makes for more efficient combustion, leading to increases in both power and efficiency plus other benefits.
Local Motors LM3D Swim
3D Printed Cars: Don’t be surprised if one day cars aren’t assembled at some factory located on the other side of the globe but rather printed locally and then fitted with all the parts to make it work. America’s Local Motors showed that such a reality is possible with the unveiling of a production 3D printed car. It’s called the LM3D Swim and comes with a body comprised of thermoplastic materials. Local Motors is still working on getting the Swim past regulatory hurdles but is confident the car can be offered for sale in 2016 and is targeting a price of around $53,000.
Mazda RX-Vision concept, 2015 Tokyo Motor Show
Rotary Engine’s Return: Though we didn’t see a new rotary-powered car launched this year, we did get confirmation that a new, much more efficient version of the rotary engine was coming. The engine is destined to appear in a new Mazda sports car and earlier this year we got a preview of that sports car in the form of a stunning concept. No details on the new rotary engine have been revealed from Mazda but we have heard from some sources that it will come with a turbocharger to help boost power. But a lack of power isn’t the rotary’s weakness. The real issue is fuel consumption--and to a lesser extent oil consumption--which Mazda will need to overcome. Mazda’s last rotary, which featured in the RX-8, had a V-8 thirst but only V-6 performance.
Jeep Cherokee production
Car Hacking: This year, the concern of car hacking came under the spotlight following the demonstration of a Jeep Cherokee being remotely hacked to the point where the driver actually lost control of some vital vehicle features, such as the brakes. It’s one of the major pitfalls of the rapid acceleration of technological innovation in cars, where adequate testing and security measures fail to keep pace, and it’s something the major automakers will need to focus on greatly as cars continue to become part of the The Internet of Things.
Hoverboards: We’re not sure why but hoverboards proved to be a major theme of 2015, with an automaker, in this case Lexus, even building a hoverboard of its own. It’s still early days so anyone hoping for a Back To The Future-style experience will be disappointed but the various demonstrations show that there are people and companies out there obsessed with making hoverboards a commercial reality. The Lexus board isn’t likely to ever enter production as it use magnetic levitation which requires super-cooling systems (think -321 Fahrenheit/-197 degrees Celsius) and a dedicated surface to function. However, just this week a company based in New Mexico announced that you can pre-order a hoverboard it plans to start building in 2016. Called the ArcaBoard, it relies on an array of ducted fans to keep you levitated.
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