New car tech speeds into the future

Jennifer Jolly
Special for USA TODAY
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

Imagine for a moment that you’re driving late at night and start to fall asleep at the wheel. What do you do? Pull over and sleep for a few hours? Maybe. Crank open the windows, blast music and smack yourself a few times? Probably. Put your car on auto-pilot and snooze away? Never. Well sooner than you think, you very well might.

I’ve just finished a 10-day test drive of Volvo’s 2016 XC90 T6 R. It already provides semi-autonomous features that let the SUV take over the steering and throttle to follow the car in front of it at speeds up to about 35 miles per hour. That’s perfect for traffic jams and congested city driving, and just one of several new next-generation features aimed at making people safer behind the wheel.

By now we all know that our car is really just one big gadget, and a dangerous one at that. According to government reports, traffic fatalities rose nearly 10% in 2015. That’s the biggest one-year leap in a half century. So now, automakers are in a race to curb the biggest cause of traffic accidents to date: drivers themselves. Semi-autonomous features like pilot assist are just the beginning.

The Smarter, Safer Car of the Future

Tomorrow's smart cars are already starting to show up today. In addition to Volvo’s “pilot assist,” feature, it’s one of several new vehicles sporting new safety tech that bring us one step closer to self-driving cars. Audi, Tesla, Cadillac, Lexus, and others also contain various levels of “active safety features,” where your car takes over driving in certain instances.

With the XC90, the car's ability to put the brakes on and react faster than a human in certain situations is pretty amazing. It recognizes if you turn into traffic or a cyclist swerves in front of you, and warns you with a loud beep and flashing red flag in the built-in heads-up-display. It also taps the brakes, and just in case you’re still not getting the message, the XC90 actually comes to a full stop.

An array of sensors, cameras and a generous dose of AI drive these functions. The Volvo can also warn you of a possible collusion if a car is approaching too fast, see lane markings on the road and keep you safety between them. As is becoming more and more common in high end cars, the XC90 can even park itself. It's not quite a self-driving car, but it's at least half way there.

Of course it's not all about safety: The iPad-esque 9-inch Sensus touchscreen serves as the high-tech control center of it all, with a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot and support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for easy integration with your smartphone. It’s also a twin-engine plug-in hybrid, that just happens to go from 0-60 in about five seconds.

I was shopping for a car when I test drove this beauty and would have bought in an instant if the mileage were better (average 22 combined city/highway) and the price tag lower. The Volvo starts at $43,950. Sadly, that’s a little too much awesome for my more practical budget.

The Greener, More Efficient Car of the Future

While the XC90 is a fantastic car, it’s still a long way from being the most efficient car on the road. Fortunately for anyone looking to go green, we're finally starting to see all-electric cars with enough range—and a low enough price tag—for them to be accessible to all of us.

The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, due out later this year, has a starting price tag of about $37,500 which you'll likely be able to drop to around $30,000 with tax credits. This won't put the Bolt at lowest price tier—it will compete with models like the $28,995 Volkswagen e-Golf, the $29,010 Nissan Leaf, the $33,900 Ford Fusion Energi and even Chevy's own $33,170 Volt—but Bolt has another advantage.

Modestly priced electric vehicles currently on the market have limited battery life. The Ford Fusion Energi can only go a scant 21 miles before needing to recharge, while the Nissan Leaf is the best of the lot with a maximum of 107 miles between charges. But The Bolt has an impressive 200-mile range. That's double the mileage of current moderately priced electric options and nearly reaches the 270-mile range of the pricey $69,000 Tesla S. Though Tesla is working on its own affordable electric car—the Model 3 — it won't be in production until next year while you'll be able to pick up the Bolt this fall.

Never having to stop for gas isn't the only thing the Bolt has going for it — you can expect to find all of the regular high-tech bells and whistles. Chevy's MyLink system pairs your phone and car together to let you send or receive calls and texts, control music, and use voice commands. One particularly cool feature of the Bolt's 10.2" touchscreen interface is the fact that you can configure the on-screen widgets to display however you'd like — a customization you don't see on most cars. For electric car newbies, the Bolt's display will walk you through information about the car's energy usage and tech you about car features, making it as much a digital manual as an in-dash control center.

Even More High-Tech Car Tech

Safety and efficiency aren't the only buzzwords you'll find in the auto industry shopping for a new car. Carmakers are also trying to figure out how to use virtual reality and augmented reality to help you buy the right car or learn to use the one you have. As you might have seen from my CES coverage this year, Audi has already started rolling out a VR car-shopping experience in its showrooms and certain 2016 Hyundai models have AR manuals that let you point your device at the car to see more information.

And as for affordable self-driving cars? Though the industry is pushing forward with features like the Volvo's automatic parking and breaking features, autonomous cars are likely still a few years away. But there’s a good chance self-driving cars will be here sooner than you think, as semi-autonomous driving continues to roll out on roadways near you, one spectacular feature at a time.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.