Auto interiors have come a long way from the days when FM radio was a novelty. Electronic interfaces, digital displays, and interactive technology have improved safety and comfort and added fun. That's a big leap from even a few years ago—when a Garmin GPS device, suction-cupped to the windshield, was the most sophisticated technology inside a car. Insiders say these innovations are only a hint of what's to come.
1. THEN: You slip into that gleaming new AMC Gremlin and jam in an 8-track. There's no volume-control thumb button on the wheel, so you reach over to crank up "Baby, I Love Your Way." As you slide the lever across the AC panel and push in the dash lighter, everything is just groovy.
2. NOW: Carmakers are using application programming interfaces (APIs) to bring smartphone-style apps to dashboards. This year, GM introduced APIs for its OnStar-equipped vehicles, and Ford recently unveiled its Sync AppLink. No more looking at a phone to access Pandora: Drivers can access map, travel, and music apps through dash infotainment centers and steering-wheel buttons. "A vehicle is one of the last domains where a person is not fully connected," says Tim Nixon, CTO of GM's OnStar. "Next year, you'll start to see cars with an unprecedented level of connectivity, from accommodating mobile devices to having 4G-embedded connectivity that goes well beyond anything seen in the last decade."
3. NEXT: In the 2030s, your speed might be regulated by roadside devices, so no more glancing at the odometer. Instead, your car could be watching you. According to William Chergosky, interior chief designer at Toyota R&D lab Calty Design Research, vehicles will likely be filled with sensors that track eye motion, body language, and who is in the car. "Although it feels very advanced right now," he says, "technology integrated into cars is really at its infancy." And if there are dashboards at all, they'll probably be packed with sophisticated safety and entertainment technologies. (Information like GPS directions will be projected into the space in front of the windshield, as some cars do now.) Let your Civic drive itself to the local Costco while you catch up on Friends: The Next Generation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.