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The Future of Automobiles & Car Technology – Hybrid, Electric & Driverless Cars

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In a single century, the introduction of the automobile has spurred massive changes in American culture, the communities in which we live, the environment, the economy, and personal independence. Every aspect of daily life has changed, from the places we live, to the food that we eat.

Automobiles, increasingly available to anyone, have blurred social class distinctions, expanded markets, and stimulated the economy. The industry directly employs more than 2.6 million people and, according to Auto Alliance, accounts for 3% to 3.5% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The American love affair with cars is evident in the number owned. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were more than 250 million registered vehicles in the United States in 2012, or one for every American over the age of 18. The average household owns 1.75 vehicles. Drivers traveled more than 2.8 billion miles over 4.5 million miles of roads and highways and 605,471 bridges in the nation that year.

Consumers can choose from a plethora of manufacturers of cars, all of which produce different makes, models, and body styles. The vehicles can then be further customized by color, engine type, transmission, interior design, and type of wheels. In addition, there are thousands of auto repair shops, high-performance mechanics, and body customizing shops ready to fulfill the dreams of any automobile owner.

The Negative Impact of Automobiles on Modern Life

For all of its contributions to modern life, the automobile has also wrought considerable negative consequences for individuals and society as a whole:

  • Expense. The purchase and ongoing operation of an automobile is one of the biggest expenditures that the typical person makes in a lifetime. Automobiles account for about one-sixth of a family’s budget, more than food or healthcare and insurance combined, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS reports that in 2010 the average passenger car in the U.S. was 11.4 years old and was driven 11,318 miles while burning $2,132 on gas and oil. Furthermore, drivers spent, on average, $787 for repairs and maintenance.
  • Deaths and Injuries. According to the United States Census Bureau, since 1990, more than 10 million accidents involving cars occur each year, causing more than 30,000 deaths per year. While the rate declines each year – reflecting improvements in design and new technology – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the cost of accidents in 2010 was $871 billion.
  • Urban Sprawl. The U.S. population more than tripled from 76 million people in 1900 to 281 million in 2000. However, according to a 2002 United States Census study, the number of people living in a metropolitan area has declined significantly since 1950. At mid-century, more than 7,000 people occupied a square mile of land area; in 2000, there were less than 3,000 per square mile. This spread reduces the efficiency of mass transit and increases pressure to build more extensive road and highway networks.
  • Congestion. According to a 2012 Texas A&M mobility study, the average automobile commuter spends more than 50 hours per week sitting in his car stuck in traffic. In cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and New York, congestion is more than 60 hours per year, causing Americans to travel a cumulative 5.5 billion hours more than necessary and to purchase an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel.
  • Pollution. While atmospheric pollution predates the automobile, most scientists agree that our personal automobiles are a major cause of global warming. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. emissions – around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gasses for every gallon of gas burned.

The Future of Automobiles

Even though automobiles have changed significantly since their introduction, the pace of improvements in automobiles is increasing – especially related to advancements to combat their negative impacts. Some futurists predict the appearance of autonomous autos – self-driving cars – within the next decade.

ExtremeTech reports that Mercedes-Benz unveiled their driverless car at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, the F-105 luxury vehicle, which comes with front seats that swivel so that the driver and front-seat passenger can sit face-to-face with the back-seat passengers. Meanwhile, BMW has demonstrated its i3 EV that self-parks and can search a parking garage for open spaces.

According to CNBC, some analysts predict that new manufacturers such as Google and Apple will supplant traditional mass automobile manufacturers like General Motors, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen with their head start on new technology. Other predictions include the following:

  • Fewer cars will be owned by families since a single car can serve a variety of members sequentially and simultaneously without waiting for a driver. For example, a driverless car could return to its home base after delivering a worker to the office and be available to transport other family members during the day before returning to pick up the commuter later in the evening.
  • There will be an increase in shared mobility where people use cars without owning them.

Future Automobile Improvements

Elements of Significant Change

Significant improvements will reduce the negative impact of automobiles in the future. These include the following aspects and elements.

Design

The first automobiles resembled the horse-drawn carriages that they replaced, simple boxes on wheels. Early manufacturers had little knowledge of aerodynamics – the resistance of objects moving through the air, or “drag.” Drag increases proportionately with speed. The shape of the car, especially the frontal area, directly affects the energy consumed as the vehicle moves forward.

Another effect of increased speed is additional lift – the tendency of the car body to rise from the road surface – from air flowing beneath the car, reducing traction and stability during turns. The use of wind tunnels has guided automotive design engineers to reduce sharp edges and improve streamlining, thus reducing drag, lift, and energy consumption.

As a consequence, makes and models appear similar as each manufacturer quickly adopts any advantage gained by a rival. Future cars are likely to be shorter with more curves while maintaining or increasing interior space for passengers.

Materials

A car’s weight directly affects the fuel consumption used during operations. University of Washington reports that widespread use of unibody construction, lightweight materials, and smaller engines reduced the average automobile’s weight by 1,700 pounds between 1975 and 2009. However, much of the advantage was offset by an increase in vehicle size and added functionality.

Continued federal pressure to increase fuel economy will result in a greater use of lightweight steel, aluminum, composite materials, and plastics to reduce weight and improve crashworthiness. For example, the Tesla Roadster’s body is constructed from a lightweight carbon fiber/epoxy composite that is as strong as steel and weighs 30% less. As manufacturing costs of the material come down, more manufacturers will turn to the revolutionary new composite materials for their vehicles.

Mechanical Efficiency

The four-stroke internal combustion engine has been the primary power source for automobiles for decades. Over the years, technological advances such as double overhead cams with four valves with variable valve timing, forced induction of air, fuel injection, computer-adjusted fuel injection, and variable valve timing has increased engine efficiency and power.

The widespread use of the engine control unit – an on-board computer that regulates ignition timing, air/fuel mixture, and idle speed – creates greater fuel efficiency and constant engine diagnosis. Transmissions are more efficient, evolving from manual shifting of three forward gears and reverse, to automatic shifting of six to eight gears and reverse. Improved hydraulics enable effortless power steering, while anti-lock brakes have drastically reduced stopping time and space.

As of 2015, hybrids – a combination of the gasoline engine and the electric motor – have not become popular in parts of the United States. According to Experian Automotive (via Adam Goldfein), one in four hybrids have been sold in California, an amount greater than the next five states (Florida, Texas, New York, Virginia, and Washington) combined.

Although most of the major auto manufacturers currently offer a hybrid model, Toyota’s Prius models have dominated the market with about 5 million total sales since 2000, according to 24/7 Wall St. Since U.S. annual sales of autos since 2000 have ranged as low as 10.4 million (year 2009) to 17.4 million (year 2000), hybrids have represented less than 3% of the total sales since 2000 and, according to Green Car Reports, average about 3% of total annual sales currently.

Many observers believe the combination of the following has restricted the sale of hybrids to date:

  • High consumer prices relative to traditional engine models ($5,000 or more for a comparable car)
  • Fewer independent service facilities capable of servicing or repairing hybrids or electric cars, requiring the car to be maintained by the selling dealer
  • Lack of consumer familiarity with the new technology
  • Increased fuel efficiency of gas engines
  • An automotive culture that idealizes horsepower and highway speed

While purely electrical vehicles powered by fuel cells (not hybrids) have captured the public’s fancy, fuel cell improvements have not progressed as quickly as projected. The average electric car has a 150-mile driving limit and requires 20 to 30 minutes to recharge.

In contrast, a 2015 Ford Focus with a four-cylinder, flex-fuel (gasoline or gasoline-ethanol blends) engine and a 12.4-gallon tank can travel more than 360 miles without refueling. While electric cars may replace traditional power sources in the future, the most likely outcome is an increased popularity of the hybrid engine, the logical transition between the gas and electric engines.

Mechanical Gasoline Efficiency

Fuels

For the majority of its existence, the automobile has relied upon gasoline – a refined petroleum product – for its fuel. Tetraethyl lead was historically added to provide more resistance to self-ignition, a condition drivers referred to as “knocking” when the ignition was turned off. Since the 1970s, ethanol – a renewable fuel blended with gasoline – has replaced lead, the combination sometimes called “flex fuel.”

Other fuels include the following:

  • Compressed Natural Gas. Some vehicles, especially large trucks and buses, are designed to operate with compressed natural gas, a fossil fuel that burns cleaner than petroleum and produces fewer pollutants. Proponents such as oilman T. Boone Pickens have advocated CNG as a better environmental and cheaper alternative to gasoline. However, the infrastructure to provide CNG as a viable alternative to a nation of automobiles does not exist, thus limiting its appeal to motorists.
  • Electricity. Electric and hybrid vehicles are increasingly common, with a fuel economy approximately 33% greater than a gasoline-powered engine. While the battery-powered cars can be recharged at home or at public charging stations, the range of the electric-only vehicles is considerably less than a gasoline-powered car with a storage capacity of 12 or more gallons. Improvements in battery technology have been slower than initially projected, and the electric-powered vehicles remain more expensive than a gasoline-powered alternative. Nevertheless, electric cars will continue to collect a greater market share as manufacturing costs decrease and their environmental advantages become more obvious. Hybrid models relying on a gasoline motor to recharge batteries or power the electric motor can be driven farther than gasoline-powered vehicles, and retain a fuel economy advantage as well.
  • Hydrogen. Some scientists and auto manufacturers advocate hydrogen as the fuel of the future, primarily for its environmental benefits. In 2014, Hyundai started leasing the first hydrogen-powered vehicle in the United States, while Toyota announced plans to sell its first hydrogen-fueled car in 2015. Most of the major manufacturers have hydrogen-powered cars under development. However, the fueling infrastructure necessary to support hydrogen as a primary fuel does not yet exist.

It is unlikely that any single alternate fuel will displace gasoline as the automobile’s primary fuel before 2025. Electric automobiles and hybrid vehicles will continue to collect significant market share as the distance traveled per electric charge increases. The world price for oil will also greatly affect the eventual wholesale conversion to an alternative fuel. If prices continue at $4.00 per gallon or greater, the move to alternative fuels will be spurred.

Communications

Electronic communication between the automobile and the environment in which it operates have undergone the most dramatic changes. Global positioning systems (GPS) are available in most new cars, albeit as an add-on item for many. As these systems become standard to all new cars, real-time vehicle tracking will be increasing available, as well as offsite engine monitoring. A GPS system is essential to driverless vehicles.

Vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications will become commonplace so that automobiles will automatically be aware of the position and movement of other vehicles, in addition to changing road conditions. Interactive road signs and traffic signals will provide automatic, constant communications to vehicles allowing course and speed corrections without driver intervention. As these elements – already technically available – are put in place, the driverless car will become a reality.

Roads and Highways

In the coming decades, the U.S. will rebuild its aging infrastructure and include the new technology of communications. Restricted lanes for large trucks are common on highways today. Platooning on interstate highways – individual cars linked together electronically and traveling together as a unit – will become commonplace as the country rebuilds its highways to accommodate communication capabilities.

The rationale for speed limits historically has been the following:

  • Driver Safety. Driving at lower speeds allows drivers more time to make adjustments if necessary and reduces impact forces. Highway accidents will be drastically reduced as computers replace human drivers, the former making instant adjustments as road and traffic conditions change. Readers should note that the Autobahn in West Germany has no upper speed limits and has experienced a traffic fatality rate far below the U.S. Interstate Highway System for years.
  • Fuel Economy. A speed limit of 55 miles per hour was imposed by the Federal Government via the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act in 1974 to reduce gasoline consumption. The limits were raised to 65 mph in 1987 and repealed in 1995. There is little evidence that the lower speed limits resulted in significant national fuel savings.

As highway infrastructure is replaced and the number of robot cars increase proportionally, maximum speed limits will disappear on a state level.

Safety

Driver and passenger safety have increased dramatically in recent years through better vehicle design and the use of automatically-deploying airbags. Automatic high-beam control of lights are currently standard on many cars, and the night vision capabilities with automatic pedestrian detection on luxury models may be standard by 2025. Rear-mounted radar and multi-directional, multi-sensing cameras are already appearing in luxury models of automobiles, and will likely become standard in future years.

Automatic emergency steering systems combining braking and evasive steering will reduce or avoid dangerous collisions in the future. Nissan Motor Corporation is among the companies developing devices to detect a driver’s inability to safely operate a vehicle – sensors that detect alcohol, cameras to monitor facial expressions, or software to recognize erratic driving – for eventual use.

Driver Passenger Safety

Final Word

Automobiles of the future will be as different from today as the first automobiles differed from the horse and buggy. Driverless cars will be significantly more energy-efficient, safer, less damaging to the environment, and more economical to operate than any mode of transportation in the human experience.

The transition to the future of autos will not be quick, taking at least a dozen or more years to replace the existing fleet of automobiles in the country. Rebuilding the nation’s highways and roads to accommodate the new technology is likely to take even longer as the nation’s leaders wrestle with conflicting national priorities. The pace of technological improvement will continue to increase, but the benefits of those improvements are not likely to be fully realized until 2050 or later.

What predictions do you have regarding the future of automobiles?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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