The story was written for by Dustin Walsh, senior reporter at Crain’s Detroit Business, who covers economic issues for the publication. The original story was published on March 11, 2018 on Click here to view the original publication of this story on 

The modern automobile is daunting — it’s one of the most technologically advanced machines on our planet — and it’s not getting any simpler.

As major automotive players, startups, researchers and technologists contemplate and design a future of cars that drive themselves, crash-free highways and new approaches to vehicle ownership (or lack of ownership), end users — those who drive, ride in and own cars — are left wondering how these advancements will impact their lives.

Here, we’re going to discuss some of the new technological advancements in automotive technology that you’ll be able to see, feel or interact with on your next vehicle or the vehicle after that. These technologies are designed to make the driving experience easier, safer and in some cases, more fun.

From easier trailer hitching and less headlamp glare to augmented reality on the factory floor, drivers will see immediate improvements behind the wheel and on the road — though the road ahead is far less clear.

Automated trailer hitching

You’ve seen “that guy” at the boat launch. You’ve probably been that stressed person at least once, backing up a trailer with a new boat toward the ramp with all the efficiency of an unmanned fire hose.

Continental Automotive Systems Inc., the North American subsidiary of Germany’s Continental AG, is aiming to bring convenient and anxiety-reducing technology to trailer use with its automated trailer hitching and guiding system.

Initial iterations of the system, likely available in 2020 mode years, uses a vehicle’s backup camera, which are now standard in 2018 models in the U.S., to identify the trailer, its clearance and proximity to the hitch. Coupled with Continental’s air suspension system, the height of the vehicle adjusts to the height of the trailer and the vehicle is guided to the hitch for a seamless connection, autonomously.

The next advance of the trailer system is the ability to back the vehicle and trailer up without ever touching the steering wheel through the use of a knob in the vehicle or a mobile app on a tablet, said Jeremy McClain, director of systems and technology for Continental’s North American chassis and safety division.

The user would receive prompts via the screen in the vehicle or on the tablet about the trailer’s angle and trajectory to allow easy, disaster-free control while backing a trailer up to a boat launch or parking spot.

“The cameras measure the articulation angle to give you a much more intuitive way to control the trailer,” McClain said. “Even for the experienced trailering drivers, it adds a huge amount of value. It brings a new level of convenience and safety.”

The ability to exit the vehicle and control it remotely will require new regulations, McClain said, but expects the ability to be a feature in the 2020s.

Adaptive headlamps

Compared to Europe, U.S. roadways are blinding. But regulation changes this year could bring an end to U.S. drivers’ glare problem.

New lighting technologies already hitting European roadways offer major advantages in the U.S. as well. Some call it adaptive-drive beam: A car’s headlamps are comprised of dozens of LED lights that can monitor the environment and adapt independently to reduce glare and improve driver vision.

Novi-based Osram Opto Semiconductors manufactures the LEDs and silicon backing to make adaptive beams possible. The cluster of LED lights work in real time to turn on and off individual lights to avoid blinding other drivers. And they can turn off to create a “black-box” effect around vehicles in the beam of light, eliminating glare for other drivers.

The systems use existing cameras on vehicles with advanced safety functions, such as lane-departure warning and emergency-braking systems, to detect light coming from other vehicles.

Plymouth-based light systems supplier Varroc Lighting Systems has a 40-LED system already in production overseas. Osram has developed a system with 1,024 LED pixels.

These lights also allow for greater visibility — current systems provide 100 feet or more of visibility over traditional auto headlamps — providing the driver with 1-2 seconds more reaction time, he said.

Mike Godwin, director of LED lighting at Osram, said adoption is picking up in Europe and U.S. manufacturers are interested in the technology. Standards are expected to be determined this summer, with the hopes of regulatory approval for the systems from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration thereafter.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality is changing the way consumers see the world — from chasing PokeStops in the mobile game Pokemon Go to live stickers on their smartphone. The same technology is also improving the efficiency and reliability of automobiles.

The innovation is one part interactive how-to and one part idiot-proofing, and is gaining traction in manufacturing, health care and other fields.

Wixom-based OPS Solutions LLC makes software powering augmented reality on the factory floor. The software, called “Light Guide Systems,” uses projectors to overlay step-by-step images and instructions, complete with visual cues like arrows and videos, on parts and production areas to assist workers with proper assembly. A worker follows visual indicators to complete each step of the manufacturing process. A red light flashes and a buzzer sounds if a step is missed or incorrect part is used.

It’s a deceptively simple way to get some huge productivity and quality gains.

At automaker FCA US LLC’s UAW-Chrysler National Training Center, roughly 5,000 new employees are training in standard manual assembly on OPS Light Guide systems. FCA revealed the OPS system boosted worker productivity by 38 percent and quality rose by 80 percent.

It’s an update on a Japanese concept called poka yoke, or driving down costs and increasing productivity in the manufacturing process through “dummy proofing,” and has been used for decades. The Japanese term, coined in the 1960s by a Toyota Motor Corp. engineer, defined the just-in-time production philosophy first implemented by Toyota before spreading to the other automakers. Production quality and efficiency spiked from implementation of the process.

While the consumer will never see an OPS system in operation, the results are noticeable in stronger welds, bolts in the correct spot and perfect undercoating, among other improvements.

The augmented reality market is expected to rise to $133.8 billion by 2021 from $3.3 billion in 2015, according to a Zion Market Research report. A healthy dose of that, as much as 25 percent, is expected to be from manufacturing and industrial use.

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