A few years ago, Doug Martin, an engineer at Ford, read an article about an unusual billboard in Lima, Peru: It was designed to collect and filter water that condenses on the billboard’s cool surfaces when humid air rolls in from the coast.
The billboard produces hundreds of gallons of clean water every week. “Local residents can just come and fill jugs with high-quality water and take it home,” Martin said.
A short time later, a thought occurred to him: Why couldn’t a car produce drinking water, too? Air-conditioners in cars do something similar to the Peruvian billboard — generating water by removing moisture from the air. Then he and a Ford colleague, John Rollinger, went about developing a system that dispenses that moisture as cool and filtered drinking water to people inside the vehicle.
Now Martin and Rollinger are working to turn their system into commercial technology.
“There are people in a lot of locations who don’t have easy access to fresh water — arid regions, remote regions,” Martin said. “But even in a market like the U.S., this might be a feature for people who want to have extremely pure, clean water and don’t want water bottles filling up the landfill.”
The drinking-water idea points to a wider change rippling through the global auto industry: As cars gain more computing power and adopt new technologies, engineers are finding ways to make cars do much more than take us from Point A to Point B.
These days, some cars can serve as Wi-Fi hot spots, backup power generators or remote controls for your home. In the future, they might also monitor your health; seat suppliers are tinkering with sensors that can monitor a driver’s heart rate and body temperature.
Karl Brauer, a senior director at Kelley Blue Book, the automotive research company, said cars were on a path that resembled the one taken by the iPhone.
“When the iPhone came out 10 years ago, you could make phone calls and text and access the internet, but no one knew how far it would go with apps,” he said. “Cars are going the same way. They are going to serve us in ways and are going to be able to do things that we haven’t even conceived of yet.”
Myriad technologies are reshaping what automobiles can do. Most new car are already loaded with computer chips and have wireless communications links, and they are gaining more abilities in those areas every year. Underneath the sheet metal, new cars also usually have fewer mechanical devices and more electronic components than earlier models, a change that allows for advances simply by changing software.
All of this is allowing auto engineers to expand their imaginations.
That was the case at Ford. After dreaming up his drinking-water idea, Martin hesitated before entering it into an internal innovation competition. “I thought: ‘This is crazy. I hope nobody laughs at me,’” he recalled.
But eventually he and Rollinger ran out to Home Depot and spent about $100 on hoses, tubing and plumbing fittings. They grabbed a standard automotive pump and a water filter, and commandeered a rectangular baking pan from Martin’s kitchen.
“This was really fun,” Rollinger said. “It was like doing a science project in school.”
They devised a way to collect water droplets from an air-conditioner’s condensing coils. Normally that water drains onto the road beneath the car. In their system, the water is run through a filter and then stored in a reservoir.
Turn a switch inside the car, and a pump sends water from the reservoir up and out a spout mounted near the front console. The water arrives chilled because it condensed on the cool surfaces of the air-conditioner coils, Rollinger said.
The pair entered the prototype they built into Ford’s innovation contest last year, and it was selected as one of the winners. They have also applied for a patent.
For now, they are talking to suppliers and working on the business case for the idea. “I’m very hopeful of seeing it go into production,” Rollinger said.
Here’s a look at some other features that cars are starting to offer.
1. Wi-Fi Hot Spot
Most weekends, Jesse Chandler and his wife load their two daughters into their 2017 Audi Q5 and head for their vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina, a two-hour trek that is made easier by the car’s built-in internet connection.
“The kids have tablet and they watch videos on YouTube on all kinds of things,” said Dr. Chandler, an orthopedic surgeon in Greensboro, North Carolina. “That keeps them pretty occupied.”
Sometimes his wife, a pediatrician, connects to the internet to finish up medical reports. “If we leave on a Friday afternoon, she can bring her laptop and get her work done before,” he said.
Several other automakers also offer in-car Wi-Fi and internet connections. For the manufacturers, they are easy add-ons because most modern cars need communication abilities for their navigation systems. General Motors, for example, offers a high-speed 4G link, and many models come with a free three-month trial.
2. Power Generator
Fuel-cell cars are now on sale in California. They generate electricity through a chemical process that turns hydrogen into water. In a pinch, they can be used as a backup power source.
The Toyota Mirai, for example, has an AC outlet in its trunk that can be used to run a refrigerator and other appliances in a blackout. GM recently built a three-ton fuel-cell truck for the Army, and the power-generating capability is one of the main features.
“You have so much electricity production from hydrogen fuel cells that you could use it to power a field hospital, or power tools and provide power relief in a natural disaster,” said Charles Freese, executive director of GM’s Global Fuel Cell Business.
3. Home Remote
When cars connect to the internet, they can communicate with our homes while on the road. An app is now available with Tesla models to communicate with homes wired for remote control, for example. Drivers have the potential to turn up the heat, turn lights on or off, and check in with home security system.
In a similar vein, Ford is working with Amazon on integrating Alexa, the online retailer’s voice-activated assistant. That would also allow drivers to control a wired home from the car.