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Smart windshields, electric turbos, and more tech about to take over your car

A lot of car technology is innovative and important, but truth is, not much of it is “world of tomorrow” exciting. Short of the occasional failed attempt at a flying car, innovations that make us feel like we are living in the future are rare. But they do exist.

That’s why we wanted to take a look at a few of the most exciting technologies that are being rolled out in the next few years.

Everything from smart glass to self driving cars is on the table — and not just at some unspecified point in the future, but rather on the immediate horizon.

Jaguar Land Rover’s ‘smart glass’

Head-up displays (HUD) are becoming increasingly common, but they are still fairly basic. Most display no more than the speed of the vehicle and perhaps navigation information. What Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is going to do will blow that out of the water.

The British brand is playing with two differing but similar technologies: “smart glass” and laser head-up displays (HUD). Both of these technologies turn every piece of glass on its vehicles into screens capable of overlaying the real world with a dazzling array of images.

On the Land Rover side of the equation, smart glass offers big benefits for off-roading.

On Land Rover’s Discovery Vision Concept, thanks to smart glass, the navigation system projects point of interest (POI) information onto the side glass for occupants to absorb. Occupants could not only read about what they’re passing, but also swipe the information onto the windshield in front of them for further display.

On the Land Rover side of the equation, smart glass offers big benefits for off-roading. The windshield display can highlight obstacles that are blocked from sight by the hood or other parts of the body, allowing the driver to place the wheels precisely where they are needed. Land Rover calls such an application a “transparent hood.” In more normal conditions, this same system could be used for tight, inner-city parallel parking.

On the Jaguar side of the brand, researchers are working on a laser HUD, which could take the traditional HUD and expand it across the entire windshield and virtually out into the environment. For example, using big lines and arrows drawn virtually across a lane, it could show the driver which exit to take on a foreign freeway.

Digital Trends Automotive Editor Nick Jaynes spoke with Jaguar about this system at the 2014 L.A. Auto Show. The company revealed that the biggest hurdles facing laser HUD at this moment are the size of the laser units and the heat they emit. Until these issues are overcome, laser HUD is still a thing of fantasy.

Electric turbos

Emissions restrictions and fuel economy regulations are on the rise, but consumers still expect automakers to deliver even more power. As a result, small-displacement turbocharged engines are coming increasingly close to being the norm. Some of the results have been spectacular, but even so, the technology may not be up to the task. Enter the electric turbo.

Normally, turbochargers are driven by the exhaust gases from the engine. These hot gasses spin the turbo, which then forces more air into the engine. This system can be very efficient, but there are also drawbacks. For the turbo to do its job, the engine needs to rev up to produce exhaust gases. This means lag time between power demand and delivery and also wasted fuel.

Volvo Twin Engine Technology

In an electric turbo, the response is instantaneous and only when needed. The potential is stunning.

For example, Volvo is exploring an electrically turbocharged version of its 2.0-liter four cylinder Drive-E engine that would be capable of producing 450 horsepower … and even better fuel economy than normal.

Ferrari and Audi are also working on high performance electric turbos, and it is even possible that the next-generation of R8 will have one.

We can’t wait to see the first production engines using this technology as it seems to be the rare win, win scenario where both performance and fuel economy prosper.

Autonomous highway driving

Self-driving — or “piloted” — cars are coming, but cars that are both capable and legally allowed to drive themselves under all circumstances may take a while. What we are interested in is the first step: autonomous highway driving.

The challenges in piloted proliferation are software development and legal liability.

The technology essentially already exists. High-end luxury cars — and less high-end cars like the 2015 Honda CR-V — already combine radar guided adaptive cruise control with lane keeping assist. Such cars can maintain speed and even steer themselves to stay centered in their lane.

The challenges in piloted proliferation are software development and legal liability. While typical highway driving presents a fairly limited array of decisions, the car still must be able to identify and respond to anything that might present itself correctly and safely. It must also do so convincingly enough that government and insurance regulators will trust it.

Despite these hurdles, companies like Audi are paving the way. Not only has it terrified Digital Trends’ very own Nick Jaynes in a self-driving A7, there are rumors that the next-generation of A8 will have self-driving technology. It’s very likely it will have exactly the sort of autonomous highway driving described above.

Related: Test driving the autonomous Audi A7

This innovation could win skeptical customers over to the idea of robot cars. Not to mention, a car capable of driving itself on the highway would be a great boon to millions of commuters stuck in bad traffic.

Conclusion

It may be hard to believe, but cars five years in the future may have all of these technologies: windows that act like giant touchscreens, engines the size of soda bottles that produce staggering amounts of power, and computers that drive for you.

Automakers understand that to stand out in the market, or even to maintain their place, they have to constantly find a new edge. Fortunately, we consumers are the ones that stand to benefit from this race — especially when it comes to technology.