We’re in something of a decisive decade for the automobile, one which will shape the form and function of future vehicles on multiple levels. Alternative fuel vehicles are slowly eating away at the market share of the conventional petrol powered motors we’ve been driving for a century.

Onboard gadgets are bringing greater functionality, and many of the best standalone ideas are becoming part of a great push towards vehicle intelligence, perhaps even full automation. Meanwhile, road authorities are looking into how technology could improve driving experience on a macro scale, developing traffic management technology that will make driving safer and easier.

Even in the last half year, several exciting candidate technologies have made headlines. These are some of the best:

Traffic Jam Assist

Anyone with half an ear turned towards technology news can tell you that the self-driving car is coming, but most will feel that the day we all surrender control of our cars remains many years, probably decades off. But the technology will be refined more quickly than we care to think, and then, the PR battle begins.

Ford’s upcoming Traffic Jam Assist tech is one of the many ways in which self-driving technology will be trying to get a foot into our lives. A forward-looking radar detects stationary traffic and takes over braking and steering duties in these low-speed, low-risk and driver-frustrating road situations. In theory, cold logical machines could ease congestion and make road rage a thing of the past… but will we want to give up the fun parts of driving too?

Rain Dodging Headlights

Given the double whammy of darkness and heavy precipitation, drivers usually have to dial back their headlights to avoid creating an impenetrable illuminated fog on the road ahead: a driving condition that’s worse than simply having dim lights. Carnegie Mellon University, has set about solving this illumination problem by developing “smart headlights”. A camera sees raindrops, and light is projected through a beamsplitter in such a way that it avoids the precipitation as it falls.

The system isn’t expected to be perfect – even a 70% reduction in reflected light will make driving with full illumination a lot easier. Though many technical challenges await – making it faster, more compact and having it deal with wind and other environmental factors.

Remote Servicing

Smartphone owners may be aware of the rather useful mechanic and automobile association apps out there. Break-down and you can send your GPS-determined location out to a recovery truck without any hassle. Well, manufacturers are looking to add similar features to the rapidly expanding capabilities of their onboard computers.

Meanwhile, Volvo are already looking at releasing their ‘Telematics Gateway’ with their trucks in 2013 (in Europe), allowing statistics on battery, brake pads, clutch and air dryer, mileage (and a number of other parameters) to be called up remotely. This could dramatically reduce downtime for fleets both by reducing service time and pre-empting show-stopping mechanical failures.

Car to X Communication

Meanwhile, the motoring industry is examining the next stage of highway infrastructure, establishing standards and developing devices for cars that can wirelessly communicate with interchanges and other features on the road. Continental are currently working on the M2XPro technology, which at present, is able to extend the resolution of GPS data to being able to tell which lane you’re currently in on a motorway. Their intelligent Antenna Module can then transmit this data, and any other telematics data, to the surrounding road infrastructure. These technologies are a big step along the road to transport system automation and the safety and efficiency potential they could bring.

Gesture Based Gadget Control

One of the biggest challenges for anyone looking to advance the capabilities of in-car tech is the simple fact that we’re not supposed to be using any of it: it’s distracting and keeps our hands off the wheel. Voice activated hands free continues to advance, but this isn’t the only safe way to interact with gadgetry.

Widely compared with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect device, Connecticut-based audio manufacturer Harman, which has focused on automotive tech for most of the last two decades, is developing a gesture-based control system. Cameras will be able to turn winks, tilts of the head and shapes made with your hands and activate a relevant gadget: blink to change the track on your iPhone, or stick your thumb and little finger out to make a call.

Steph Wood is a content writer for UK-based car leasing specialists Nationwide Vehicle Contracts, who provide many current high-tech options in their fleet.