05 March 2015

The future of driving

Fasten your seatbelt. Because the way that you drive is about to change – and it’s going to change a lot faster than you might think. In just two years, new cars will be bristling with features that seemed ridiculously futuristic just a few short years ago. Ten years from now driving will be almost unrecognisable from what it is today.

So what do the new vehicles of the next few years hold for us? How will your daily commute have changed by 2017 or 2025? And how easy will it be to afford the snazzy new vehicles redefining life on four wheels? Here’s a quick guide to what’s coming down the road:

Driverless cars

Imagine climbing into a sleek, streamlined Mercedes, telling the driver where you want to go, and then kicking back to watch a movie whilst you’re transported to where you need to be. It doesn’t sound all that futuristic until you realise that there is no driver. This is the Mercedes Benz F015, a robot vehicle that’s also a mobile living space, and can take over the driving whenever you want it to. It’s what Mercedes expects a luxury vehicle to look like by the year 2030 – and they’re not alone.

Robot cars are already rolling along roads in the US, UK and Germany as part of government pilot schemes, with big brands like Audi, Lexus, Toyota (and of course, Google) working on driverless systems1. Self-drive technology uses lasers, cameras and sensors to monitor and react to your surroundings – and the companies behind it argue that it will make driving safer by eliminating human error2.

What will a robot vehicle set you back? The price tag for adding driverless technology to a vehicle is between £50,000 and £70,000 today, but there are predictions this could drop to under £5,000 by 2025, making a self-driving car an affordable choice within a decade. And it could be even cheaper to go driverless. Taxi company Uber plans to create fully autonomous vehicles that will simply turn up whenever you need them. You won’t even need to worry about parking.

Connected cars

Aside from making hands-free phone calls, time spent driving is pretty unproductive. But it’s unlikely to stay that way for long. Google, Apple and Microsoft are all bidding to connect cars to their operating systems, enabling you to access emails and use your favourite apps whilst behind the wheel. Such ‘connected cars’ promise to give you a safer and less stressful journey as well. By communicating with other vehicles they’ll be able to anticipate trouble, apply the brakes if needs be – and avoid traffic jams3.

Because they are able to piggy-back on existing mobile networks, connected cars won’t come with a hefty price tag – and we won’t have to wait all that long for them either. Wired magazine predicts the technology will be standard in all new vehicles by 2020.

Laser headlights

What’s the difference between laser headlights and the old-fashioned type? Imagine projecting light that’s almost as powerful as daylight over twice the distance of standard headlamps4. BMW’s concept laser headlights will work with the car’s sat-nav to spotlight the next turn you have to make, and use infrared technology to pick out any obstructions in the road ahead. If you’re worried about the effect on other drivers, then don’t be. The light is diffused to eliminate dazzle when sensors detect an oncoming vehicle.

It sounds futuristic and expensive – but laser headlights are already available, and their price is coming down fast. The Audi R8 LMX, which comes with them, will set you back £172,000, but BMW recently announced potential retrofitting of ‘Laser Lights’ to its i8 models for around £7,000. The price could come down further still over the next few years.

Self-parking vehicles

It’s one of the trickiest and most frustrating parts of the driving experience, which makes it all the more exciting that parking is likely to be out of our hands in just a few short years.
It’s hard to find a vehicle manufacturer that isn’t racing to develop self-parking technology. Volkswagen’s allows you to squeeze into spaces with a tolerance of just 20cm each side. BMW’s uses lasers to record the surrounding environment and create a digital plan for getting you into your spot. In both cases you can stand on the pavement and issue instructions using a smartphone or smartwatch – and both technologies should be available in new vehicles next year.

However, you won’t have to wait even that long to take at least some of the stress out of parking. Ford’s new S-MAX can already reverse itself into a car parking space, and warn you of approaching traffic when you’re pulling out – all for a price that is broadly in line with other new vehicles5.

Cars that monitor your health

We spend quite a lot of time checking that our cars are running smoothly. Over the next few years, they will start to return the favour. Lots of big brands are testing 'drowsy driver’ technology that monitors your behaviour and warns you when you’re getting sleepy. BMW is trialling a steering wheel that watches over your pulse and stress levels. Nissan is working on a gear stick that can measure alcohol levels in your sweat, and Audi is developing facial recognition software that detects when you’re getting distracted. Ford meanwhile has teamed up with health-tech companies to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetic drivers, and there’s help on the way for asthmatics and hay fever sufferers too.

Cars that care don’t come cheap at the moment. Technology to track your eye movements currently costs £16,000 (as an upgrade on the already pricey Lexus LS460)6 but as this technology becomes more widespread, it’s likely to become more affordable too.

Buying the cars of the future

You’ve got more options than ever when it comes to buying a car of the future, including buying the car outright (using cash, loans or a credit card), using a hire-purchase agreement or personal contract plan with the dealership, or simply leasing the vehicle. But buying any car can be expensive, so make sure you consider carefully the best option to suit you. You can find helpful advice in our online car buyer’s guide, which highlights the benefits and disadvantages of all your car-purchasing options.

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