Four wheels, an internal combustion engine, and a steering wheel – for the first 100 years of their existence, motor cars have got faster and sleeker but more or less stuck to the basics. The last decade, though, has seen big changes, from electrification to autonomous driving to perhaps even flying cars.
The way we use cars is changing too, leading some to predict that private ownership will fall and urban populations will increasingly rely on carpooling and ride-sharing. These are behavioral changes that could have a big impact on the way cars are designed, built, sold, and driven.
So let’s take a look at some of the big trends that are affecting what and how we drive and how they might go on to evolve over the next decade!
Before we even talk about autonomous driving, there are many ways in which cars are getting smarter and hopefully more helpful. The term “connected car” refers to cars that are online and capable of sending and receiving data, and most new cars today use this technology in some way. Often this involves artificial intelligence (AI) – machine learning algorithms designed to predict and adapt to the driver or environmental behavior.
Intelligent in-car assistants – think Alexa or Siri in your car, or car-specific services created by BMW and other manufacturers – now let us take care of all the car’s peripheral systems like entertainment and climate control with our voices. As this technology develops, we can expect them to become more useful – perhaps predicting and operating those systems without having to tell them what to do. Other AI systems are under development that will monitor driver eye movements while the car is in motion, to ensure that they are paying attention to the road and even detect if they are in danger of falling asleep. And while the futility of attempting to re-invent the wheel is widely understood, no one's ever said that tires can't be improved on! Goodyear has developed a concept tire that responds to the car’s native road conditions, as well as an individual driver's behavior, to dynamically adjust the composition of the tire by self-injecting a synthetic, spider-web material that changes its structure.
Whether or not we are all traveling in self-driving cars by the end of the decade, cars themselves are likely to be made up of systems that are intelligent within themselves, helping to make driving safer and more comfortable.
Fully-autonomous cars are one of AI’s most headline-grabbing use cases, and the reality has seemingly been almost within reach for the last half-decade. Will manual driving be a thing of the past by 2030, though? That's still hotly debated – although the technology appears to be almost ready, the legislative, societal, and infrastructural changes that will be needed before all cars can become self-driving are far from complete.
Autonomy in cars is measured on a scale of one to five, which was initially set out by the Society of US Automotive Engineers. They range from level one, which covers driver-assistance features such as cruise control, to level five, which means full autonomy. A level five autonomous vehicle can drive anywhere in the world that a human driver could, with no human interaction required. Level five autonomous vehicles are not available to the public or legal to drive on any roads yet. Elon Musk is sticking to his prediction that Tesla will achieve this by the end of this year – but many people are understandably skeptical about this, given his fondness for hyping up his own products!
The latter half of the decade seems like a more realistic target – particularly when you take into consideration the legislative and legal requirements. I believe that we are headed towards a future where autonomous driving will be the norm – purely due to the fact it has the potential to save a huge number of lives and capital expenses caused by human error while driving. By some estimates, full uptake of autonomy could reduce road accidents by up to 94%. But it’s an area where technology will have to wait for society to catch up, meaning there will still be a need for human drivers for some time yet!
Smart cities and car sharing
There are lots of ways in which using a one-ton metal box powered by fossil fuel, which costs us a good chunk of our monthly income to run, is inefficient. Unless we drive for a living, chances are our car sits idle for 90% of our day - during which we still pay to tax, insure, and possibly lease or finance it. This points to efficiencies being possible by shifting towards shared ownership or pooling of personal transport vehicles.
Today, cities are designed to be “smart cities”, in the sense that infrastructure such as roads and public services are networked and integrate AI technology to improve the quality of life of those who work and live in them. Currently, Singapore, Helsinki, and Zurich are considered to be the "smartest" in the world, according to the Institute for Management Development’s index. Road and transport infrastructure has a big part to play here, and while a large proportion of citizen journeys within smart cities of tomorrow will take place via public transport, it's still widely recognized that there will be a need for more personal forms of mobility. As such, the development and design of new car models will shift to accommodate smart roads and smart car parking facilities, which will be planned and located in a manner that minimizes their impact on residents' quality of life. Carpooling is likely to become more popular as public transport takes care of most people's day-to-day needs and cars are generally only required for out-of-the-ordinary travel – perhaps a trip out of town to the beach or countryside. And smart city infrastructure will impact the driving experience; for example, in San Diego, California, a network of sensors attached to thousands of streetlights is used to monitor traffic flow, carbon emissions, and availability of parking.
Alternative power sources
Electric cars have been on the cards for a long time, but it's only over the last decade or so that battery power has become efficient enough to make it an affordable reality. The two biggest drivers of this have been the huge fall in production cost of batteries (by a factor of around 10x since 2010), and successful marketing campaigns by companies like Tesla and Toyota, that have convinced drivers that electricity is the way forward.
This is certainly more than a fad. Ford expects that all the vehicles it sells in Europe will be electric by 2030, and VW predicts this will be 75% globally. Some makers such as Jaguar are even more committed – planning to switch its entire production line to electric vehicles by 2025.
By the end of the decade, fossil-fuel-powered combustion engines may be largely confined to remote and undeveloped environments where EV infrastructure isn't practical and maybe the race track. But besides electricity, other power sources are becoming more popular and practical. Biofuels are made from renewable sources that can be grown as crops or algae in a sustainable way. Hydrogen fuel is already being explored by carmakers including BMW, Honda, and Toyota, and is thought to offer potential due to creating zero carbon emissions. Although this technology is currently too expensive for mainstream use, its cost will inevitably fall over the next ten years.
So, the general public may just about be getting their heads around the concept of self-driving cars – perhaps we’re ready to introduce an even more outrageously sci-fi concept, and what could be more sci-fi than flying cars? Well, now the moment that everybody who watched Back To The Future in the eighties has been waiting for is (almost) here! This year, Michael Cole, chief of European operations for Korean carmaker Hyundai said he expects flying cars (or perhaps driveable planes?) to become a reality by the end of the decade. His own company is already working in partnership with Uber to develop a flying taxi service, which could be seen in full-scale concept model form at CES at the start of the year. Then, in June, a flying car prototype named AirCar, powered by a BMW petrol engine, completed the world's first flying car journey between international airports when it traveled between Nitra and Bratislava, Slovakia. These vehicles straddle the space between car and aircraft – able to travel on roads on through the air. When it comes to the future of personal transport, though, some visionaries are seeing no need for road travel capabilities, preferring to concentrate on air travel alone – such as the drone taxi service piloted in Dubai as far back as 2017. The future of personal airborne mobility could take either form – or some hybrid approach that hasn’t yet been dreamed of. But, while it will almost certainly start out as an option that’s only a practical reality for the super-rich, if it has the effect of reducing congestion and environmental impact of travel that's been predicted, by 2030, it could be a part of everyday life for all of us!