My last job was with a publication that focused solely on wireless technologies (a now-defunct brand titled “Wireless Systems Design”). For a January issue in the early 2000s, we chose to do a “forecast” issue covering one technology area that we thought would greatly impact the world. Our choice was telematics—a term encompassing the use of telecommunications and information-providing technologies in automobiles. A little more than 10 years later, it is clear just how appropriate that choice of subject matter was. After welcoming seemingly all of the communications technology developed and deployed in the consumer world, the automotive industry is now using it to create the car of the future.

With every generation, each automobile has evolved into its own network. Slowly but steadily, each car also is becoming part of an ad-hoc network with the cars around it. In addition, it will eventually become part of a regional network, which will allow it to communicate and receive information from different points of the city in which it is traveling.

Part of this evolution is being driven by the meeting of “smart cars” with “smart cities.” As global efforts focus on conserving energy and functioning more efficiently, there has been significant interest in applications like “smart parking,” which will inform vehicles of available parking spots. Taken a step further, a smart city could advise any smart cars on their routes to improve traffic flow.

In addition to boosting efficiency, vehicle-to-vehicle networking is being tested as a means of improving automotive safety. Vehicle-to-vehicle safety technology was the focus of a keynote address by the Honorable Norman Y. Mineta—former US Secretary of Transportation and Board of Director for Lilee Systems—at last month’s first-annual ACM/ISS/IFAC/TRB International Conference on Connected Vehicles (ICCVE 2012) in Beijing, China. According to Mineta, vehicle-to-vehicle safety technology can help drivers avoid or reduce the severity of four out of five unimpaired vehicle crashes.

To bring some of these safety and efficiency applications to the actual market, Cisco and NXP Semiconductors have invested in Cohda Wireless. Cohda’s technology vows to enhance wireless communications to quality levels beyond commercial off-the-shelf IEEE 802.11p transceivers, allowing cars to more effectively “see” through obstacles or around corners.

In many ways, the car can be considered a “last frontier” of sorts. What was previously unconnected is now being connected. Through smarter vehicles, people will experience the “Internet of Things.” Drivers will know where a parking spot awaits them, be informed of approaching traffic jams and directed to avoid them, be warned that they’re getting too close to a nearby car, know that a car somewhere in front of them has lost control, and more. Somewhat frighteningly, automatic controls—such as braking—will probably be implemented at some point, aided by input signals from supporting sensors. It seems that an old-fashioned car—one that just drives and lets us listen to music—is going the way of the dinosaur. Remember when a cell phone simply allowed a user to make and receive phone calls? Get ready for the self-driving car; it is in our future.