Seven advanced car technologies the government wants now

Sophisticated computer systems, sensor networks , battery and electric grid development are among the hot research topics.

The House last week approved the Advanced Vehicle Technology Act of 2009 with a goal of developing a wide range of scientific advances for our cars. The bill authorizes $550 million for FY10, and increasing by $10 million every year through FY2014, for vehicle technology research being conducted by the Department of Energy . Of that total, about $300 million will go toward developing passenger and commercial vehicle technologies, such as the hybridization or full electrification of vehicle systems to reduce gasoline use. Here we take a look at seven of the most important technologies the government's bill seeks to develop rapidly.

Watching you:

Watching you: Onboard computer systems to monitor driving characteristics such as unsafe driving behavior. According to a Department of Transportation report , feedback from such a system can be supplied to drivers in real-time or in the case of a commercial driver, provide carrier management a view into its driver's behavior. Such a system would monitor speed; following behavior; attention/inattention; fatigue symptoms; and general safety. Watch a video on the automated highway .

Car speak:

Car speak: Such systems can be as simple as one car encountering an icy patch on a remote road could signal this potential hazard to following cars. General Motors talks about a system that can tell when a rear-end collision is imminent and flashes its brake lights and reverse lights to grab the attention of the oncoming car. Watch a video on how such systems work.

Talk to the road:

Talk to the road: Vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems use embedded road sensors, GPS systems and even radar to enable a car to avoid and alert the driver to road problems. Some of the most advanced work in this field has focused on helping drivers avoid accidents at intersections. For example, the Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance System is a government-sponsored effort that could help reduce accidents by alerting drivers when they or other vehicles are projected to violate traffic control devices and telling drivers about potential problems at intersections - such as someone possibly running a red light. For a look at one of these systems, go here .

Get me the grid:

Get me the grid: When plugged in, the battery systems of these specially equipped plug-in hybrids can communicate directly with the electrical grid via smart meters provided by utility companies through wireless networks. Ford last week announced such a system that uses an in-dash computer to choose when the vehicle should recharge, for how long and at what utility rate, Ford stated. For example, a vehicle owner could choose to accept a charge only during off-peak hours between midnight and 6 a.m. when electricity rates are less expensive, or when the grid is using only renewable energy such as wind or solar power, Ford stated.


Batteries: It's no secret that battery technology could be the key to future hybrid or pure electric vehicle production. Congress wants to see companies increase production and decrease costs while having the capability to accommodate different battery chemistries and configurations. A good example of the researcher the government looks to fund is MIT's Electric Vehicle , an all-electric car with similar performance capabilities of gasoline-only counterparts, which includes a top speed of about 161 kph and the ability to recharge in about 10 minutes (battery photo). The Department of Energy last year spent more than $30 million on battery projects from Ford, GM and GE to hasten the development of vehicle batteries capable of traveling up to 40 miles without recharging, which satisfies 70% of the average daily travel in the United States. The projects will also address critical barriers to achieving DOE's goal of making such cars cost-competitive by 2014 and ready for commercialization by 2016.

The gas:

The gas: It seems a little awkward that on the one hand the government this year basically cut a bunch of money from hydrogen research yet kept mention of it in the advanced technologies bill. "We're going to be moving away from hydrogen-fuel cells for vehicles," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Wall Street Journal . "We asked ourselves, is it likely in the next 10 or 15, or even 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy? The answer, we felt, was no." Still there's a ton of hydrogen research going on at Toyota, BMW and GM so it's likely not going away. The Mercedes Mercedes-Benz F-CELL Roadster With Hybrid Drive, pictured here, is a cool example of a hydrogen car. The long-term R&D goal of the DOE's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative is to provide hydrogen fuel cell technologies to industry by 2015 to enable industry to commercialize them by 2020. To be commercialized, hydrogen fuel cells must be competitive with gasoline vehicles in terms of price, convenience, safety and durability. Take a look at some hydrogen powered car research in action .

You are what you are made of:

You are what you are made of: In the case of cars, steel is still the main ingredient. Steel producers and auto manufacturers are constantly morphing it to try and take some of the weight out of the stuff while keeping it strong . But aluminum and ever-harder plastics are entering the picture as the rush increases to lighten-up cars and get better gas mileage. The military too may contribute technology to car of the future. For example, DARPA's Structural Amorphous Metals (SAM) program is building a new class of materials with what it calls amorphous or "glassy" microstructures that have previously unobtainable combinations of hardness, strength, damage tolerance and corrosion resistance. Calcium-based SAM alloys are being developed for ultralight space structures, aluminum-based alloys for efficient turbine compressor blades and iron-based alloys for corrosion resistance. Watch a video on how lightweight steel helps curb emissions.

A few facts from Congress:

• According to the Energy Information Administration, the transportation sector accounts for approximately 28% of the United States primary energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, and 24 % of global oil demand.

• The United States transportation sector is over 95% dependent on petroleum, and over 60% of petroleum demand is met by imported supplies.

• United States heavy truck fuel consumption will increase 23% by 2030, while overall transportation energy use will decline by 1%.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.