On Back To the Future Day, Where Are the Flying Cars?

Create: 10/20/2015 - 13:00

Because today, Oct. 21, 2015, is “Back To the Future Day,” it seems appropriate to talk about connected automobiles. While not quite the flying cars depicted in the movie that lends its name to the day, today’s cloud-connected car is an accomplished feat of technology.  The car that uses the Internet of Things to report on its mechanical health, map its route, regulate its temperature and even drive itself, is here today — and they are growing in number. 

Cars designed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute took their debut road tests on a specially designated section of Interstate 395 in Northern Virginia earlier this week. The driving occurred on the express lanes outside Washington D.C. at a time when normally they're closed to the public. Although the vehicles were manned, the cars’ computers did all the driving, acceleration and braking during the trial. State and federal lawmakers including ransportation Research and Technology Assistant Secretary Greg Winfree, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, and Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands went for a ride Monday on one of the busiest roadways in the country. While the express lanes were closed to regular traffic as they normally are that time of day, the road conditions were real, and researchers also added real-life situations such as motorcycles, construction zones, and emergency vehicles on the side of the road.

So will self-driving cars catch on? I think the most likely use will be within transportation fleets. A varying level of automated driving is already available on the consumer market including automated park assist and rear view cameras. But consumer demand is pretty significant, with a 2014 report by McKinsey & Company finding that more than a quarter of car buyers said that Internet connectivity is more important than features such as engine power and fuel efficiency. In the next five years, the number of connected cars may exceed a quarter of a billion worldwide, according to Gartner. 

And most of those won’t be DeLoreans.

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Jennifer Bosavage

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