Future Shocks

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2008

I recently traveled on busy I-75 behind the wheel of a 2009 Volvo S80 T6 AWD. If any car available from a dealership can be called the Car of Tomorrow, this is the one. It’s the template others will use in the future.

I was ripping along in a train formation at 72 mph, but my foot wasn't on the accelerator. Traffic ahead slowed, the Volvo slowed, but I never touched the brake pedal. Cars approached me from behind and a glance at a small light on an outside rear view mirror told me when one was in a blind spot not seen in my mirrors. A birds-eye map mid-dash pinpointed my location on this planet to within about three feet. I drifted slightly to the right and an alarm like a cell phone ringing warned me I was leaving my lane. I listened contentedly to music beamed from a satellite.

I concluded I was driving a Real World Car of Tomorrow, produced from the marriage of a computer geek and a runway model. This Volvo S80 is beautiful, safe, luxurious and comfortable, and has more computer brainpower than a first generation IBM.

It can be yours for $49,025, as tested.

The features I utilized on the interstate are all options to the base $42,045 price. But they're the cutting-edge technology that makes this model unique. They include adaptive cruise control that allows me to predetermine a distance I want to be from the car in front, while maintaining a preset speed; collision avoidance, which warns me of impending danger and applies the brakes if I don't; a blind spot information system, using radar to tell me cars are approaching from behind to my left or right; and satellite radio broadcast to a stylish antenna at the rear of the roof.

The engine for this tester was a turbo-charged six-cylinder that produces 281 horsepower. That's plenty, but only yielded 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. A smooth six-speed automatic transmission handled shifts.

A Volvo, of course, has safety at the head of its list of desirable traits. The S80 had all expected safety features, air bags and head restraints galore, plus dynamic stability control to rescue me if the car starts sliding, a brake distribution system that maximizes stopping power on any surface, a seat-designed whiplash protection system, fantastic bi-Xenon headlights that really light up the road ahead at night, good interior and exterior lighting when the car is remotely unlocked at night and, most important perhaps, all-wheel drive to provide traction on the slickest of roads.

A Real World Car of Tomorrow, we’re told, will have even more computer control of situations that in the past have been the sole province of drivers. One day, a driver might be able to input a North Carolina address into a navigation system and have the car do most of the driving from Florida. The driver would only have to determine when and where to stop for rest breaks.

The car could even sense when fuel is needed and head for a nearby service station, conveying its needs to a computer in a pump.

Of the advanced Volvo systems, the one least usable in high-speed traffic is the blind spot indicator. I set cruise control at 70 mph and stayed in the right lane of interstate traffic. Now, most of you know that 70 mph is not what most vehicles travel on interstates. I was almost constantly passed in the left lane by cars and trucks doing 80 or more.

Each time, the light on the rear view mirror displayed to let me know a vehicle was in a spot I couldn’t see in a mirror. But if I relied on that light to change lanes, I likely would have triggered a collision. The cars passing me were approaching at a closing speed too great for safe lane changes even before the light turned on to indicate their approach. That blind spot indicator is useful mostly in city traffic, where lane changes can be made at lower speeds.

The cruise control worked well, but other drivers were a problem.

Good drivers are taught to leave one car length for each 10 mph of speed. That’s seven car lengths separating same-lane vehicles on the interstate. No one seems to obey that rule. Some cars travel mere feet apart at 80 mph (which helps explain some multivehicle accidents). When I left the proper distance, invariably a faster car would pass on my left and pull into my lane, forcing the Volvo to slow down and again compute the proper distance. It happened over and over, to great frustration on my part.

But when most vehicles have these features, this won’t be such a problem, will it? The next generation Car of Tomorrow will “talk” to other cars, maintaining safe speeds and distances on autopilot. Emergency vehicles will send out signals to “talk” with nearby traffic. Inclement weather will be communicated to a car, and slow it down if appropriate. Every component of a car will be monitored and a problem will be communicated instantly to a driver.

This 2009 Volvo S80 is just the first generation of what the next decade will bring.

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