Flying cars might have been considered the true future of the automobile in the 80s, however the concept has evolved into what is known as `intelligent cars', as currently being worked on by the FlexRay consortium.
The idea behind the intelligent car is that it thinks in unison with the driver. "It swings into action if you get into trouble," says Roger Lilley, business development manager: Philips Semiconductors. "So that if you go into a skid, for instance, the car immediately applies perfectly balanced brakes on each wheel to stabilise you, the accelerator reduces speed instantly (even if your foot is on it) and the steering automatically corrects itself. Or when you are driving at high speed along the motorway, the car automatically senses how close you are to the vehicle in front, and reduces speed to avoid a collision, without interfering with your handling of the steering wheel."
The FlexRay consortium are made up of Philips and core partners DaimlerChrysler, BMW, Motorola, General Motors and Bosch, along with a whole host of associate companies, whom have started work on In-Vehicle Networks which hopes to sport the first intelligent car.
This brainy vehicle uses X-by-wire technology that basically eliminates the mechanical and hydraulic systems that enable today's cars to steer, brake, accelerate and regulate suspension control. Instead, it replaces them with sophisticated and reliable electronic systems. In the intelligent car, electronic signals communicate the driver's intent to turn, accelerate, brake, stop etc.
"It is similar to developments in aircraft engineering during last century, which enabled planes to abandon the heavy mechanical parts that controlled the aircraft's ability to manoeuvre and resulted in hard work for pilots, replacing them with the sophisticated electronic fly-by-wire controls that practically enable planes to safely fly by themselves," explains Lilley.
"Similarly to modern aircraft, future In-Vehicle Networks will be fitted with a series of fail-safes to ensure that you are never without control over the smart car, even if one of the systems fails."
X-by-wire is being developed as a fault-tolerant technology - meaning it will have a foolproof back-up component that takes over if a primary system shuts down. The possibilities for such technology are endless, believes Lilley. He says X-by-wire can be used in a number of basic systems, including braking, climate control, oil pumps, steering and balance systems. "It will boost a car's performance, increase safety, improve vehicle responsiveness and reduce emissions, making tomorrow's cars even more efficient and more environmentally friendly."
The FlexRay consortium is working on developing a definitive in-car control system, which it hopes will become the future X-by-wire standard. In addition, FlexRay is also working on bringing a complete X-by-wire car onto the market as soon as possible.
Philips Semiconductors is developing silicon solutions for this evolving standard, using its technological know-how to manage and control the increasing numbers of sensors, actuators and electronic systems integrated into the next generation car.
However, those keen on seeing for themselves just how smart the intelligent car is, have a while to wait. "According to current estimates, the first smart controls will begin appearing in production vehicles in 2006 at the earliest, while most of us will not be able to try it out for another two years after that. But I still think it is worth the wait for a more energy-efficient, smoother and safer ride," concludes Lilley.