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Jan 21, 2012

Top Five Automotive Trends to Watch in 2012

The automotive world is always full of surprising new developments, and 2012 will probably be no exception. However it is possible to identify the trends within the industry from which the latest innovations are most like to emerge. Here are five major automotive trends to keep your eye on as the New Year unfolds:

A Hybrid car on display at the NAIAS, 2012

1. The Hybrids

The shift to hybrid vehicles is already well under way across the industry and is expected to only accelerate this year. Major releases are expected from both Ford, with its C-Max plug-in hybrid, and Toyota with it Prius PHV. However the most attention is being paid to the so-called micro-hybrid or "start-stop" vehicle. Already available from Fiat and Volvo, this exciting new technology allows vehicles to automatically shut off their engines at opportune times, such as when waiting at lights or in heavy traffic. Ford, Chevy and Kia intend to introduce the technology on select models this year, with potential gas savings of up to five percent. Expect this technology to quickly become universal.

2. Automatic Driving

The great dream of both drivers and safety experts is the car that quickly and safely takes you where you want to go without the driver having to actually control the vehicle. Such a dream car is not going to be available any time soon, but the first wave of this technology is arriving in 2012. Ford is expanding the availability and range of its lane-keeping capabilities introduced last year, which warns lazy or inattentive drivers that they are moving beyond the lane markers. Lexus already has features to assist in parking in their luxury models and these are expected to become a commonplace feature of nearly all models in 2012. Promised soon are the collision avoidance capabilities that will automatically help to prevent accidents. People will always want to drive their cars themselves, but a car that enables you to let it drive itself whenever you want it to, be the wave of the future.

3. Less Complexity

With more and more features that require ever more sophisticated technology behind them, the amount of electronic control units needed by each vehicle is becoming almost unmanageable. Today's vehicles can require between 40 and 75 micro-controllers as well as on board wiring that can add up to anything between 50 and 70 pounds. As cars become more autonomous in their driving capabilities the need for these processors will only increase, leaving manufacturers ever more anxious to simplify the means of running all these features. The trick is to increase functionality without increasing complexity, which means introducing new software and technology while streamlining the old. Everyone is working on it; maybe in 2012 we will see some of the results.

4. New Batteries

All the major companies, including Ford, BMW, GM, Toyota and others continually reassure us that purely electric vehicles are on the way. But the key to the electric car will always be the battery, and that means bigger car batteries with expanded capacity. Tesla and Rolls Royce are both expected to release new, more powerful electric batteries in 2012, while new lithium-ion plants will also come online this year. Increased manufacturing should result in the lowering of battery prices, and these lower costs will only accelerate the development of larger battery sizes with even greater energy storing capacities.

5. New Processors

One way to deal with the new complexities of automotive technology is the introduction of new and more powerful processors. So-called "multi-core processors" that are already in use in some automotive applications will come into greater use and be more widely adapted in 2012, especially in introducing ways to make engines more efficient by such means as highly controlled direct injection. Hybrid vehicles are also using multi-core to handle their increasing mathematical and technological complexities and enhancing their performance.

As always, there will be emerging trends this year that no one can now foresee. But in the meantime, these five areas are the ones to watch in the constantly evolving automotive world of 2012.

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