I like to think that difficult times bring out the best in people. Although 2008 was the toughest year the automotive industry experienced in decades, it was also an opportunity for engineers and designers to change the way we think about and drive cars. From alternative fuels to a car that stops itself, here are my top picks for the best new technologies of 2008.
1. The Car That Runs on Air
Although hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new, a fuel cell-powered production car is revolutionary. The Honda FCX Clarity runs on air, emits only water, and has three times the fuel efficiency of a modern, gas-powered hybrid car.
Power comes from an electric motor that runs on electricity generated in a hydrogen fuel cell.
The production model is the second-generation FCX: the original car was the first fuel cell-powered vehicle to meet all federal safety regulations, and to start and operate in sub-freezing temperatures.
Honda plans to lease about two hundred vehicles to customers in Southern California over the next three years. The biggest challenge to widespread distribution of fuel cell vehicles is infrastructure: the only FCX Clarity refueling stations and service facilities are in the Los Angeles area.
Honda is currently working on a home refueling station Plug Power Inc. The FCX Clarity has a range of 280 miles between fill-ups.
2. The Car That Stops Itself
The Volvo XC60 doesn't roll out until 2009, but I had a chance to experience its innovative city safety technology at the manufacturer's desert proving grounds in Phoenix, Arizona last summer.
The purpose of the technology is to prevent low-speed accidents. It will automatically apply the brakes at speeds up to nineteen miles-per-hour, if a collision is imminent and the driver fails to take action.
A laser sensor on the top of the windshield monitors objects and vehicles up front: it can detect objects within thirteen feet of the XC60's front bumper. If the car's on-board the computer determines that the driver is not responding, it automatically takes action.
The laser sensor works in both daylight and at night. Engineers expect that city safety will drastically reduce the number of low-speed collisions.
3. Wake-up Call
The driver monitor system on the Lexus 600h hybrid sedan prevents drivers from falling asleep at the wheel.
The system uses three cameras: two in front of the car that work with a radar sensor to monitor vehicles and objects ahead, and one in the steering wheel that monitors the driver's face.
If the system detects that the driver has not looked ahead for a few seconds and there is a vehicle or object ahead, it alerts the driver with an audible alarm and flashing light. As the car gets closer to the object, the system can gently apply the brakes.
The on-board computer also reprograms the car's power steering ratio, making it more aggressive, so the driver can steer around the obstacle.
4. Better Night Vision
Adaptive bi-xenon headlamps available on the Audi Q7 sport-utility vehicle help the driver see into unlit corners of the road at night. The system responds to steering wheel inputs: it sends a beam of light to the side of the road that the driver is turning towards.
Not only does adaptive lighting make it easier for drivers to navigate winding roads at night; they also protect pedestrians at intersections, who wouldn't be seen with conventional headlamps.