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From Gears to Gigabytes: The digitization of the automobile is already well underway

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Advances in automotive technology have increased by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. From innovative powertrains to the enduring goal of improving fuel economy, manufacturers are always looking for ways to make their product more appealing to the public. As computers become increasingly powerful and versatile, we are seeing the use of technology shift inside automobiles.

Whether onboard machines that help facilitate control and communication between a modern automobile's many complex systems or broader applications that will completely change the way we interact with our cars, the potential goes beyond Knight Rider-style capabilities. In the same way the mobile phone industry evolved from flip-phones to smartphones, car manufactures have harnessed this immense and compact computing power to vastly increase safety, reliability, and convenience.

The Computer-assisted Edge on the road

Over 90% of accidents are due to human error. These technologies are set to make major reductions in errors behind the wheel.

One of the greatest contemporary advances in car safety is the variety of radar, sensor, and computer-assisted driving systems. While initially available only in select luxury vehicles, driving assistance programming is becoming a brand standard. This technology goes far beyond standard cruise control with features like lane assist, adaptive cruise control, parking assist — and even the ability to learn a driver's habits. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, over 90% of accidents are due to human error. These technologies are set to make major reductions in errors behind the wheel.

The current buzz is the automotive world's focus on the future of self-driving vehicles, but the reality is that the technology currently in many cars on the road already gives them a computer-assisted edge, creating a high-tech layer of protection for passengers and drivers. Adaptive cruise control lets a user set a desired speed and uses radar to monitor the surroundings. When sensing another vehicle ahead, it automatically breaks, maintains a preset distance from the other car and, when that vehicle moves, it resumes the set cruising speed to pass it.

Other technologies that assist in keeping the car within the lanes vary from vibrating the steering wheel (indicating lane drift) to actually allowing the car to steer itself to correct the position. For most consumers, safety is a major concern and manufacturers are listening. As sensors continue to become more sensitive and computers get smaller and more powerful, manufacturers are able to vastly increase safety by supplying drivers with tools to keep them on the road and aware of their surroundings. This goes for car maintenance too.

Diagnosing Problems with the help of apps and technology

Anyone who has had car troubles and has taken their vehicle into a mechanic is probably aware that almost all problems are diagnosed by simply plugging your vehicle into diagnostics machine. Unlike the past where that clunking, grinding, wheezing or yelping noise had to be explained by either years of experience or extensive troubleshooting, modern cars' computers control and monitor nearly every element of the vehicle from the brakes to the air conditioning.

Still, instantaneous diagnostics are no longer exclusive to the realm of mechanics and heavy-duty tools. There are several products on the market that allow consumers to dive into their cars computer directly and get instant reports on any issues through a smartphone. What's more, many of these can also monitor driving behavior to make suggestions on how to save cash by changing driving habits — and even have GPS in case you forget where you parked.

Another way to see this information in the near future will increase safety by eliminating the need for a smartphone and instead putting it directly in the driver's field of vision. The prevalence of Head-Up Displays (HUDs) is on the rise in models across the board. HUDs use tiny projectors mounted in the vehicle's dashboard to beam information so that it appears in front of the driver's side glass. The information ranges from turn-by-turn GPS directions to speed, upcoming obstacles, hazard warnings,and more.

There are more advanced HUDs currently being developed that would respond to gestures, allowing the driver to control a range of functions without ever reaching for the console. Even a few HUDs promise to project a full augmented-reality landscape that integrates points-of-interest.

As computing technology continues to advance, so too will the components and capabilities of our cars. Building cars that are continually loaded up with greater technical features will not only make for exciting innovations in the automotive field, it will make the road a safer place for everyone.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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