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From the Model T to the SUV, the automobile defined twentieth-century America. Now, in the twenty-first century, will new technologies send cars the way of the horse and buggy? Not likely, said speakers at last week’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference on the future of the automobile.

The automobile’s future looks bright, the experts agreed, but expect big changes for “the industry of industries,” as legendary General Motors head Alfred Sloan once called it.

Information Highway

We’ve already seen dramatic change in the auto industry. Reliability-a traditional selling point-has improved across the board. And while a mechanic from 1945 would have little trouble finding his way around a 1980 Chevy Camaro, the car’s 2001 descendant, with its legion of microprocessors, would be completely alien to him.

Even more confounding: telematics, the advanced data communication that’s being built into cars (see Commuter Computer). Features like enhanced trip navigation, road awareness and night vision will become standard issue.

“Things are being looked at now that would never have gotten past the door a decade, or even five years, ago,” said John Heywood, director of MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory.

Leave the Driving to Us?

But as carmakers pile on the telematics, they create ever-increasing demands on the driver’s attention, emphasized Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT’s AgeLab.

“We can put all this stuff in the car, but the bandwidth between the driver’s ears remains the same,” Coughlin said. He added that the problem will be worst for elderly drivers, who may already suffer from reduced vision, strength, flexibility, attention and perception.

As baby boomers get older, Coughlin predicted, the number of elderly highway fatalities will surpass that of deaths from drunk driving. Since older drivers have the most experience, he pointed out, they will be the least likely to appreciate driving tips from their car.

So, while car intelligence has the potential to assist drivers, it could also distract, confuse and annoy.

Surface Engineering

The trick, said Coughlin, is to present ever-more-complicated information in ever-simpler ways.

Wolfgang Reitzle, vice president for design at Ford’s luxury car group, agreed. “Ever-more-complex computer technology is disappearing behind ever-more-hermetic displays,” said Reitzle. “When the devices themselves speak and listen, the buttons and switches will shrink away and disappear under the hands of the designers.”

To see what a future car display might look like, peek inside a modern airplane, said John Hansman, Jr., a professor of aeronautical engineering at MIT, who designs cockpits for civilian and military aircraft.

Today, Hansman said, cars are replicating the “glass cockpit” revolution that, starting 20 years ago, replaced an airplane’s hydraulic controls with electronic ones. Tomorrow’s cars may also take a page from another revolution, known as “fly-by-wire,” resulting in the automation of most controls.

Hansman’s most intriguing idea may be the “dark cockpit,” in which almost everything is hidden from the pilot-until it becomes important. “We have so much information that we don’t show you anything unless you need to know it,” Hansman said.

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