Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Don’t look now, but some long-time car staples may soon be a thing of the past. Ashtrays, antennas and cassette decks already have bit the dust. Now the dead pool turns to rearview mirrors, door handles, buttons, gauges, radios and even car keys themselves as smart electronic systems take over for dodo mechanical devices. 

While recent advances have gone a long way to enhance safety, performance and functionality, cars and trucks have outwardly maintained the same basic components as their forebearers. Not anymore. 

Futuristic show cars are on the fast track to reality. Take General Motors’ new Opel GT sports coupe, which was unveiled at the Geneva auto show. The sleek-looking concept vehicle does away with rearview mirrors on the outside and eliminates traditional buttons and switches on the inside.

The door panels seamlessly blend into the side windows and the windshield flows into a panoramic glass roof. Hidden keypads are used in place of door handles and the side rearview mirrors are replaced with integrated video cameras that display images on interior monitors. The GT’s Spartan interior is highlighted by a central touchpad control unit and a brushed aluminum instrument panel with two round displays that can be reconfigured to show traditional tachometer data, maps and other information. 

This technology is not restricted to concept cars; it is making its way into production. For example, in addition to keypads and buttons, new touch displays have smartphone-type controls, such as swipe, scroll, pinch-zoom, and drag. The new BMW 7 Series even has a gesture-activated control system. 
GM recently received approval from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to use a video camera-based interior rearview mirror in a production vehicle. It is available on the all-new Cadillac CT6 sedan and will soon expand to other GM models. For now, NHTSA still requires vehicles to maintain traditional exterior mirrors and the inside unit must be switchable so that it works like a conventional mirror or video monitor. 

GM says the streaming high-definition video image on the mirror improves a driver’s field of vision by as much as 300 percent and eliminates visual obstructions, while reducing glare and providing a crisper image in low-light environments. The automaker developed the video processing technology with Japan’s Sharp Corp., while Zeeland, Michigan-based Gentex Corp. developed the integrated mirror/video display.

Advanced lighting systems also are making their way into next-generation vehicles. Adaptive headlights automatically adjust to driving conditions. 

German supplier Hella has developed a warning system that uses interior lights to direct a driver’s attention to potential problem areas. If a sensor identifies a bicyclist approaching to the left of the vehicle, for example, a light appears on the driver’s side A-pillar or door-panel. 

Volvo, meanwhile, has developed a new smartphone application designed to eliminate the need for traditional car keys. The Bluetooth-enabled app lets drivers use a phone or other wearable device to lock and unlock doors, open the trunk and start the engine. Electronic keys for multiple vehicles can be stored on a single device, and users can send their code to other people as needed. This differs from current apps that allow users to remotely perform some functions, but still require a physical key to be present to drive the vehicle. 

Volvo is testing its system this year in a pilot program with a car-sharing firm in Sweden. Next year the company plans to offer the digital key technology in a limited number of commercially available vehicles. Reassuring old school drivers, Volvo says owners still will be able to request physical keys if they want them.

What’s next? If autonomous cars get the green light, vehicles could morph into living rooms on wheels with facing seats and biometric sensors that monitor an occupant’s health and help transition back to human-controlled driving. Steering wheels and foot pedals likely will become less visible, turning into on-demand features that retract out of sight when not in use. Don’t blink or the future may pass you by.

� With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public relations company.