The flying cars promised by science fiction aren’t quite ready yet, but automakers like General Motors have a pretty acceptable consolation prize — a smart, self-driving, self-parking car that, equipped with a wealth of sensors and communications equipment, aims to make auto accidents a thing of the past.

For GM, much of the technology needed for the vehicle of the future is being developed at its Israel research and development facility.

“The technologies that will power autonomous vehicles including smart sensing, vision imaging, human machine interface, wifi and 4G/LTE communications, and much of that is being done at our Herzliya facility, in conjunction with GM’s other R&D facility in Silicon Valley,” said Gil Golan, director of GM’s Advanced Technical Center in Israel. “The industry is being driven by customer preference and demand, and in order to keep up, we need to develop these technologies and ensure we are meeting customer demand. To stay on top of the market you have to be versatile, and the Israel ATC helps the company to do that.”

The GM that emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 to profitability in 2011, 2012, and (so far) 2013 — after its huge 2011 IPO, one of the five biggest in history — is a good lesson in how a company can be versatile. The company dropped some brands (Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn, and others), brought back others (Corvette, Silverado and Impala) that had good sales histories, reduced its workforce, and aggressively diversified into growth markets like China. The result is a smaller, leaner company that has seen sales grow, especially in the past year.

Gil Golan (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Gil Golan (Photo credit: Courtesy)

One of the assets the new GM held onto was the Israel ATC, which has been in business since 1995.

“We started working in Israel nearly 20 years ago with some limited projects, but we ramped up activities here in 2007, and have been going strong ever since,” Golan told The Times of Israel. “Israel is a very important location for GM.”

Golan was speaking before a GM-sponsored event at the recent DLD (Digital Life Design) festival in Tel Aviv called “Drive the Future,” which highlighted the company’s vision of the smart cars of the future.

According to Golan, connectivity will be key for the cars of the future (by “future,” he means in the next five or so model years).

“Cars today are very sophisticated, much more than they used to be,” Golan said. “Modern cars have as many as 100 systems, all of them controlled by computers or processors.” That includes the engine, braking system, cooling system, steering and suspension, transmission, and many others.

Examples of how the systems will work could include having a self-driving car automatically stop at red lights, or stay within the speed limit. Sensors could alert drivers on when their tire is going to hit the curb when they are parallel parking. A video camera could detect when a vehicle gets too close to the one in front and automatically reduce speed to ensure a safe gap. In-dash apps could let drivers communicate with others on the road, getting information about traffic, accidents, services, and other useful information.

Much of the technology to do this already exists, said Golan, having been developed in the past for smartphones. In fact, he said, the smartphone is the model for the car of the future.

“People want smartphone-like experiences in their vehicles,” Golan said. “We have studied this in depth, and what customers are asking for are ‘super-smartphones on wheels.’”

The ATC is working not just on ways to make cars smarter, but ways to make drivers and passengers happier. One project it worked on with students from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design was the development of apps to help backseat passengers, particularly children, be less bored while on the road.

The result was several apps to help kids while away the time, including Otto, an animated character projected over passing scenery that responds to real-time car performance, weather and landscape, to help kids learn about the environment; and Foofu, an app that allows passengers to create, explore and discover through finger drawing on window steam.

The project, called Windows of Opportunity (WOO) is “invaluable,” said Omer Tsimhoni, lab group manager for the ATC’s human-machine interface, because “it is just one of many projects underway at GM that could reinvent the passenger experience in years to come.”