The Jetsons gave us a taste of flying cars with bubble-like glass roofs in 1962, but the car’s basic conventions haven’t changed much since then. Modern cars may have touchscreens, GPS, and collision avoidance now, but the average commuter still travels on a road paved with asphalt, still regularly fills a fuel tank with regular unleaded, still controls a car’s trajectory using a steering wheel, still brakes by pushing down on a pedal. Yet the auto industry has changed drastically, even over the past decade. Some say it merely went through a recession, but it was much more profound than that — it was a complete transformation. Companies no one could imagine failing ended up in the history book, while players no one saw coming like Tesla are now considered disruptors.
And the technology packed into the average new car has grown exponentially – there are more lines of code in a modern car than in a jet airplane. Why? For one thing, tech makes our lives easier. Phones know precisely when we need to be at the airport, how to get there, and where to find the closest parking spot — why shouldn’t cars provide the same information?
Automakers also use tech to make their models more desirable, which explains why high-tech features are often bundled into option packages that add hundreds or even thousands to a car’s base price. Horsepower and lofty fuel economy figures aren’t enough to lure consumers into showrooms anymore. And government regulations pertaining to safety and emissions make certain tech features – such as electronic stability control – mandatory.
To see what it’s like, we took a ride in an autonomous Volvo XC90 prototype on the outskirts of Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden. No, it’s not The Jetsons. But in many ways, it’s even more incredible.
It’s as clear as a new windshield: The massive leap forward that the car is about to take will make previous innovations look like baby steps.
A decade of turmoil
Today, all of that innovation seems obvious, a fact of life, just as we accept the fact that we can buy a Chevrolet, a Buick, or a Dodge. But in 2008 General Motors and Chrysler found themselves on the brink of an unprecedented failure that could have decimated a chunk of the American auto industry, and killed the revolution before it began.
In hindsight, America’s carmakers could have failed a lot sooner if it wasn’t for the sport utility vehicle (SUV) boom. By the end of the 1990s, nearly every company competing in the North American market had at least one SUV in its lineup. The future looked bright at the turn of the millennium, but a succession of events quickly pushed the Big Three into dire financial straits.
A succession of events quickly pushed the Big Three into dire financial straits.
“The collapse of the financial markets [in 2008] choked credit; rising unemployment and sinking house prices sapped household budgets; and summer brought $4-a-gallon gasoline, a particular disaster for the Detroit Three, with their anemic offerings in small cars,” explained Steve Rattner, often called “Obama’s car czar,” in his book Overhaul.
To complicate the matter, high labor costs made American cars more expensive to build than equivalent Japanese models, yet they often sold for less — so Detroit’s profit margins were alarmingly thin. Finally, many motorists had simply developed a poor image of American cars.
Ford had a better grasp on its business than its two American rivals, so it began to raise capital early. In 2006, the company pledged many of its assets – including patents, real estate, and even its iconic Blue Oval logo – as collateral to obtain a $23.5 billion loan package that kept it afloat. It later sold off other assets, including Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar, and Aston Martin.
Chrysler and GM failed to see the tide turn, and top executives from both companies ended up going to Washington to ask lawmakers for money in the fall of 2008. The reaction to these unprecedented demands was initially mixed — many on Capitol Hill believed that both companies should be allowed to fail. Others considered merging Chrysler and GM into a single company, a solution that would have made the industry leaner by eliminating overlapping products, brands, jobs, and factories. A strong argument in favor of the merger was that axing Chrysler – which had been bailed out once before – would help GM rebound faster, because it would have one less rival to fend off in its home market.
“At the New York Times, I helped cover Chrysler’s pleas for a government bailout,” Rattner wrote. “In one story, I described the debate as a ‘first-rank political and economic controversy over whether it is obligatory, or even desirable, for the Federal Government to come to the rescue of a large, ailing corporation.’ That question, it turned out, would trail me.”
Merging Chrysler and GM was ruled out, but it became evident that they were both too big to fail. Tens of thousands of workers would find themselves unemployed overnight, not to mention the high number of suppliers that would be forced to shut down in the ensuing domino effect. And the American economy was too fragile to cope with the implosion.
The industry was wound tighter than a banjo string. It was clear something had to give.
Collapse and rebirth
Chrysler filed for bankruptcy on April 30, 2009. It quickly announced a partnership with Italian carmaker Fiat, one of the largest manufacturers in Europe. Fiat initially took a 20-percent stake in Chrysler, and it agreed to provide the company with the technology it needed to manufacture smaller and more efficient cars.
General Motors filed for bankruptcy 32 days later. In the following weeks, it announced plans to discontinue Hummer and to sell both Saab and Saturn in order to reduce the number of brands it owned. Pontiac production ended in December 2009 after 83 years, and Saturn was ultimately deep-sixed when the deal to sell the brand to Penske Automotive fell through. Interestingly, Buick was only retained because it was the most popular GM brand in China at the time. The U.S. government took a 60.8 percent stake in GM following the bankruptcy filing. Americans joked that its initials stood for Government Motors.
Unprecedented air pollution has led to a widespread push for cleaner cars.
Ford – which avoided using federal money – restructured itself by following a new product plan called One Ford that pared down the number of vehicle platforms in its portfolio. Instead of developing an architecture for each region, the company built different cars sold in different parts of the world on the same platform. The cost savings were tremendous.
The last detail to hammer out: How to get the public to buy new cars again in order to ensure that the taxpayer-funded companies would survive.
“Scrappage, or the rate at which cars were junked, had dropped decade by decade, from the 1970s rate of more than 7 percent a year to about 5.5 percent, which meant that the average age of cars on the road was increasing,” according to Rattner’s research.
The task force appointed by the auto industry decided to instate a cash-for-clunkers program that gave buyers a huge rebate on the purchase of a new car if they traded in an old, gas-guzzling model. The program was unprecedented in the United States, but France and Germany had used similar programs to prop up sales on and off since the 1990s.
Would it help save the industry?
Smog. Thick, visible, disgusting. And unfortunately widespread.
It’s the unprecedented level of air pollution in big cities all around the globe that has led to a widespread push for cleaner cars. While most companies offer at least one gasoline-electric hybrid model today, the ultimate goal for carmakers and regulators alike is zero-emissions driving.
Currently, there are two main ways to achieve zero emissions: a hydrogen-powered drivetrain, which emits only harmless water vapor, and an electric drivetrain, which has no tailpipe emissions to speak of. Each has its own set of pros and cons.
BMW is one of the companies making large investments in both solutions. The German firm believes electric cars will ultimately dominate our cities, but hydrogen power will be used on longer trips. The reasoning is that a hydrogen tank can be topped up in anywhere between three to five minutes, which is close to the refueling time of a conventional gasoline- or diesel-burning car. And modern hydrogen power is remarkably invisible.
“The customer can’t tell the difference between the two,” Merten Jung, BMW’s head of fuel cell development, told Digital Trends.
The break-even point is 300 to 400 kilometers (186 to 248 miles), according to BMW. Electric vehicles make sense for drivers who require less range – mainly those with a short commute or who drive exclusively in the city – because the battery pack can be topped-up relatively quickly, while motorists who need to drive further are better off with a hydrogen-powered car in order to avoid the unpractically long charging times often associated with long-range EVs.
A decade ago, BMW was experimenting with cars that used a conventional internal combustion engine modified to burn hydrogen. However, fuel cell technology has made so much progress in recent years that the hydrogen stored on board is now used to generate electricity that zaps a motor. In other words, a hydrogen-powered car feels nearly the same to drive as an electric car. The biggest difference is where the electricity comes from.
The new technology makes it possible for BMW to leverage the benefits of economies of scale. Gearboxes, motors, and electronics can be shared between EVs and hydrogen cars without any major modifications. The similarities will accelerate the adoption of hydrogen-powered cars by making them more affordable.
“When you have an electric vehicle with a large battery, you replace the battery and you integrate the fuel cell, the hydrogen tank, and a smaller battery for re-gen. Then, basically, once the electric energy is provided — either by the battery or by the fuel cell — the whole drivetrain is identical. They have the same driving experience, too. It’s pure electric driving in both cases,” Jung said.
Hydrogen-powered cars feel nearly the same to drive as electric.
How hydrogen is carried on board is key to achieving a long driving range. Previously, hydrogen was stored in a tank as a liquid. Today’s prototypes store hydrogen as a gas, and it’s cooled down to a very low temperature so that more of it can fit in the tank.
Jung stressed that BMW is still fine-tuning the technology, and he doesn’t expect that the components will be ready for production before 2020. After that, the company will decide where and when to roll out the technology, and which vehicle(s) will inaugurate it.
Rival Mercedes-Benz also believes in both electric and hydrogen vehicles. It will introduce a hydrogen-powered car based on the GLC crossover in 2017, and it’s in the early stages of designing an electric drivetrain that takes advantage of new battery technology to deliver an impressive range of up 310 miles. Many other companies are planning long-range EVs, including Jaguar, Volvo, and Audi. Tesla’s monopoly on the premium electric car market won’t last long.
Not every company believes that hydrogen is the right way forward. Volvo experimented with a hydrogen-electric variant of the C30 compact in 2010, but it ultimately shelved the project and opted to focus its resources on plug-in hybrid and battery-electric drivetrains instead. The cost of batteries for electric vehicles will drop by 50 percent by 2021, while the driving range they offer will double in the same period of time, according to Michael Fleiss, the vice president of Volvo’s powertrain development department.
While the industry is slowly but surely shifting to electric powertrains, Mercedes cautioned that the venerable internal combustion engine that has powered our sedans and our sports cars, our trucks and our buses, for more than a century isn’t quite dead yet.
“Highly efficient combustion engines will surely stay part of our future mobility. As technology does not stand still, there is still some more potential regarding efficiency,” predicted Harald Kröger, the company’s head of electrics/electronics and e-drive development. “With new technology, we set standards which were not foreseeable a few years ago.” Plug-in hybrid technology will be the most common form of electrification for at least another decade, he said.
Volvo echoed Mercedes’ comments. Although it’s making massive investments in electrification, the company believes that the diesel engine will stick around in the foreseeable future.
“It will be very difficult to replace the diesel engine overnight,” said Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson. He predicts that diesel-powered cars will become more expensive because they will require a much more advanced after-treatment system in order to comply with upcoming emissions regulations. Consequently, motorists might need to fill up their diesel exhaust fluid tank every time they fill up, not roughly once a year like they currently do.
“The amount of new diesel-powered cars on the road will go down, but it won’t go down to zero,” continued Samuelsson. “We’ll let the future decide, we’ll let the customers decide.”
Autonomy at last
New tech makes it possible for a car to drive itself, but it’s important to make the distinction between an autonomous car and a driverless car. An autonomous car drives itself from point A to point B with someone in the driver’s seat, while a driverless car is capable of going from point A to point B without anyone in the car. Most major carmakers are working on autonomous technology, not driverless technology. The point isn’t to take the steering wheel out completely — at least not yet.
“Daily commuting is a sweet spot for autonomous technology.”
Long known as a pioneer in automotive safety, Volvo is at the forefront of semi-autonomous and autonomous technology, and has been working on an autonomous car for nearly a decade. Autonomous cars can ease the traffic flow in big cities, give commuters more free time, lower air pollution, and make roads safer by reducing accidents, the company believes.
“These key reasons convinced us to enter the field of self-driving cars,” Erik Coelingh, Volvo’s senior technical leader, told Digital Trends. “We see this as a technology that fits the needs of modern society very well. Daily commuting is a sweet spot for autonomous technology,” he affirmed.
It’s possible to reduce congestion because self-driving cars can be controlled very precisely, both laterally and longitudinally. They will consequently pave the way for smaller lanes, allowing more cars to fit on the same amount of asphalt. The flow of traffic will be smoother because autonomous cars are programmed to change lanes less often than humans do. And autonomous technology also takes away the possibility of human error, which is the root cause of a vast majority of accidents today.
Instead of displaying eye-catching concepts at auto shows, the company is working hard to put the technology in the hands of real-world customers through a pilot program called Drive Me that will kick off in 2017 in Gothenburg, Sweden, its hometown. Volvo has teamed up with Swedish transportation authorities to ensure the program is a success.
The key to getting customers to adopt autonomous technology is trust. Volvo is consequently looking into how the car needs to be positioned in its lane, how it needs to accelerate, and how much information it needs to provide its passengers. While there’s no simple answer to these questions, Coelingh had an idea of what Volvo needs to achieve.
“I don’t want a car to drive the way I do. Look at it this way: My driving style is different if I’m traveling with my family in the car, because it would be uncomfortable for them otherwise. If I’m my own passenger, I expect the same treatment. Have you ever ridden in a taxi where you don’t reflect upon the driver’s driving style? That’s the kind of behavior we’re after.”
Driving without driving
Getting a car to drive itself is easier said than done. The technology requires complex backup systems, a solution that’s also found in airplanes. It’s unreasonable to tell drivers that they can relax behind the wheel and then expect them to suddenly take over if something goes wrong. The technology consequently relies on two batteries, two braking systems, two steering systems. The car absolutely needs to be able to bring itself to a safe stop if something fails.
What happens if a car can’t avoid a collision? Does it swerve, or does it brake? Coelingh explained that autonomous cars can’t make dynamic avoidance maneuvers. “If you move a camera really quickly as you take a picture, what do you see? Nothing, and that’s also true for a car.” That means mitigation (such as braking as hard as possible) is the most appropriate way to deal with an obstacle in the road, not swerving out of the way.
It’s like riding in an elevator: If there’s an accident, it’s not the person standing in the elevator that’s to blame.
Volvo is also working on packaging the different sensors, lasers, and cameras as discreetly as possible so the cars don’t look like prototypes. It’s also focused on reducing the cost of the equipment so that the technology is affordable to the average premium car buyer. That said, the company expects that autonomous technology will initially arrive in showrooms as part of an extra-cost option package.
To get a taste of what’s to come, we rode in an autonomous XC90 prototype on the outskirts of Gothenburg, on the same streets that the Drive Me cars will hit starting in 2017. Surprisingly, the prototype looks just like a standard XC90, save for tiny cameras that are discreetly integrated into the door mirrors. Coelingh pointed out that the sensors, cameras, and lasers on board are designed to “read” the road through the SUV’s body panels.
We came away impressed with how seamlessly the XC90 performed in everyday driving. It kept a safe distance between it and the car in front of it, stayed in its lane, and braked and accelerated smoothly without jerking or hesitation. However, the system is dependent on lane markings, and it tells the driver to take over if it reaches a stretch of road – such as a construction zone – where the markings are faded or absent altogether.
Volvo accepts liability in the event of an accident in one of its autonomous cars. Coelingh explained that it’s like riding in an elevator: If there’s an accident, it’s not the person standing in the elevator that’s to blame. With that in mind, the XC90 prototype was set to go precisely the speed limit and not a mile over. Volvo can’t take the risk of programming its prototypes to cruise at five or ten over, as most drivers do.
The goal is that, in 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo. The company is consequently trying to bring autonomous technology to the market as soon as possible, though a more specific time frame hasn’t been officially set yet.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a United States government agency whose mission statement is to “save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes,” welcomes autonomous technology with open arms.
“We are witnessing a revolution in auto technology that has the potential to save thousands of lives. In order to achieve that potential, we need to establish guidelines that clearly outline how we expect automated vehicles to function – not only safely, but more safely – on our roads,” said Anthony Foxx, the U.S. secretary of transportation, in a statement.
President Barack Obama has proposed investing nearly $4 million over a 10-year period to accelerate the development and the adoption of autonomous cars. If approved, the money will be used to carry out pilot programs in the U.S. to gather information about how motorists use autonomous technology, and what infrastructure changes are required for them to function properly. It will also fund research to fine-tune an innovative software called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication that lets cars “talk” to each other in order to avoid accidents.
Down the road
A major milestone in making American roads safer was reached in April 2016 when 20 major companies, representing 99 percent of the new car market in the United States, agreed to make automatic emergency braking standard on every car they sell starting in September 2022. As its name implies, the system automatically applies the brakes if it detects that a collision with a vehicle ahead is imminent. It can’t avoid every single rear-end collision, but it can ensure that they happen at a lower speed, which mitigates both material damage and injuries.
“When people experience a driver-less car they get wildly excited about it.”
NHTSA called the commitment to safety “historic,” but admits that driverless cars – those with no pedals and no steering wheel – will likely face legal hurdles on their path to production. California regulators have already proposed banning all vehicles that don’t have a steering wheel, pedals, and a licensed driver ready to take over if something unexpected happens. Autonomous vehicles on the other hand, such as the XC90 we rode in on the outskirts of Gothenburg, face very few obstacles — and their development is encouraged by the federal government.
Uber, Lyft, Volvo, Ford, and Google have joined forces to form the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (SDCSS). Spokesman and counsel Dave Strickland explained that forming a coalition is the most effective way for the five companies to convey a unified message. It also allows them to pool their resources in a bid to convince lawmakers that driverless cars should be allowed on the road in all 50 states.
The SDCSS firmly believes that the legal issues facing driverless cars today can be overcome in a timely manner. In fact, Strickland predicted that the technology will be on the market in way less than a decade. One way to bring driverless cars to the masses is through car-sharing programs held in a controlled environment like New York City or San Francisco, where the speed limit is relatively low.
“People tend to think of it as just a computer driving a car, and they have had bad experiences with computers and handheld mobile devices. They can easily freeze up, and they can easily fail; do you really want that in a car?” Strickland said. “The public isn’t understanding how the vehicle operates. From what I’ve seen, when people experience a driverless car, they get wildly excited about it.”
The ever-increasing amount of tech features found in cars opens the door for new players to stake their claim in the automotive industry. The best-known ones are Google and Apple, two rivals that recently launched infotainment systems called Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, respectively. They override a manufacturer’s built-in infotainment software and project applications installed on the driver’s smartphone directly onto the touchscreen that’s typically built into a car’s center stack. Both systems are billed as more user-friendly than the software developed by car manufacturers. They also reduce distractions, because many of the features are accessible via basic voice commands.
The tech giants’ reach will be more than dashboard-deep. Google has been testing autonomous and driverless vehicles for years. And while it started by building modified versions of existing cars like the Toyota Prius and the Lexus RX, it unveiled a prototype designed in-house in May 2014. Interestingly, Google’s car requires no input from the driver whatsoever, which promises to improve the lives of citizens with reduced mobility, including those who can’t drive because they’re too old or because they’re visually impaired.
“The next 10 years will be the biggest shift in mindset of car design and engineering.”
Google’s driverless car – colloquially known as the Google Car – takes the form of a two-seater powered by an all-electric drivetrain. It features a friendly, cartoonesque design, and a podlike shape that increases the field of vision of the sensors used to gather information about the road ahead. Using advanced maps, it knows precisely which street it’s driving on and which lane it’s positioned in.
Apple’s plans are much more enigmatic, and the only information we have on Project Titan – the alleged internal name of the program – are rumors and whispers. Some sources claim to have heard engine noises late at night coming from a mysterious building leased by Apple in California, while others believe they’ve stumbled upon a secret development site in Berlin. Many report that Apple has tripled the project’s team size to 1,800 individuals, including dozens of top-notch executives poached from the auto industry. Conversely, some analysts speculate that Apple has absolutely no interest in becoming a full-fledged carmaker, and it simply wants to provide software to existing manufacturers.
A new look for a new era
The drastic change in how cars are powered and driven will have a far-reaching impact on how they’re designed. The lucky few who draw cars for a living are a creative bunch, after all.
Ian Callum, Jaguar’s director of design, explained that electric drivetrains open up a whole new set of possibilities because they take up less space than internal combustion engines. “The next 10 years will be the biggest shift in mindset of car design and engineering – watch this space,” said Callum with a smile.
He pointed out that battery-powered drivetrains give designers much more freedom, and he believes that going electric will change the makeup of a car in the coming years. For example, an electric motor can slot neatly in between the wheels, a packaging solution that frees up more space for the occupants. One way to use the extra space is to build a car that has two trunks, something Tesla has done with the Model S and the Model X. Another possibility is to bring people forward to have a bigger trunk in the back, or to add more space in the middle.
Exterior design will change, too. For example, Callum said that many people he’s talked to believe a Jaguar should have a long hood. Any enthusiast will eagerly point out that Jags have traditionally been characterized by a long, plunging hood, but that’s because they have historically been powered by 6- or 12-cylinder engines. “You package what you’re given,” summed up the designer. “But if they don’t have that straight-six anymore, why should they continue to have a long hood? I don’t have a problem with that at all, I love experimenting.”
Electric vehicles are typically heavier than comparable gasoline- or diesel-burning models. That requires the top half of the car to become stronger in order to handle the extra heft, which generally means it needs to get bigger. Callum predicted that the necessity for a stronger top half will drive other innovations, such as see-through door pillars.
Autonomous technology promises interiors that put a bigger emphasis on relaxing.
Another important variable is the size of the battery pack. Engineers currently need to develop large battery packs in order to give cars the kind of driving range that customers find acceptable. Packs will undoubtedly get smaller as technology advances, but they’ll continue to dictate the length of an electric car’s wheelbase.
Autonomous technology can also change the way cars are designed, and Satoru Tai, Nissan’s executive design director, brought up an interesting point. Currently, cars are considered aerodynamic when they have a low drag coefficient because motorists need to maintain a safe following distance between their car and the car ahead. Autonomous technology will make it possible for cars to follow each other much more closely, so building a car with an aerodynamic silhouette might be less important moving forward.
The shift will be gradual, and the first true autonomous cars will essentially be regular production models fitted with a suite of tech features. The next-gen models will be a little more daring, and automakers will gradually try different solutions – and present concepts at auto shows – to gauge the public’s reaction.
“Cars are somehow expressing the driver’s emotions and personality,” Tai explains. “A Ferrari says ‘Hey, look at me, I can drive fast,’ it’s a statement. When you start to spend time in your car relaxing, or doing something other than driving, what should a car’s design express?”
Of course, autonomous technology promises to let designers draw interiors that put a bigger emphasis on relaxing. There will still need to be an HVAC system, seating for passengers, and safety features like airbags, but the rest is free to evolve. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine a steering wheel that automatically retracts into the dashboard when it’s not in use in order to give the driver more space; companies like Volvo and Nissan have already shown concepts fitted with such a system. Lounge-like interiors are possible, too.
Volvo’s Coelingh predicted that the steering wheel will stick around for as long as people enjoy driving, however. “If one day customers ask us, ‘Why is this thing in the way? I never use it,’ then we’ll consider getting rid of it. But it won’t be any time soon,” he added.
From necessity to pleasure
Broadly speaking, the sweeping changes that will transform the car as we know it today only apply to mainstream, mass-produced models.
While low-volume automakers are being asked to design cleaner cars as well, they face far less pressure to go electric than bigger companies. Ferrari, for example, remains committed to building ultra-quick sports car, and no one should expect the storied Italian marque to celebrate its 75th birthday in 2022 with a podlike electric model aimed right at the Google Car. Similarly, autonomous technology is understandably low on the company’s list of priorities because the supercars it builds are designed to be enjoyed while driving, not while reading the newspaper.
Vintage cars have unexpectedly soared in popularity – and consequently in value – in recent years, and that trend is poised to continue. Even governments that enforce stringent safety and emissions regulations will make exceptions for classics. These cars are considered an important part of a country’s history, and they make up only a tiny fraction of the vehicles on the road, especially because few of them are driven on a daily basis.
In a decade’s time, driving will be well on its way to becoming a pleasure, not a necessity. The average commuter will be able to sit back and let his or her car navigate mundane routes or dense traffic, then take the wheel when driving is fun, such as on a fast-paced winding road. Autonomous technology has the potential to give motorists the best of both worlds.
In the end, computers won’t replace the human as a driver altogether. A teen turning 16 in 2026 will still need to earn a driver’s license before slipping behind the wheel. But a different permit – possibly one that’s easier to obtain – could be required to operate a driverless car, assuming it receives the green light for production.
The upcoming design revolution will change the automotive landscape. Even for die-hard enthusiasts, it will be fascinating to watch how sedans, coupes, crossovers, and pickups evolve when designers are given freedom to think outside the box. Autonomous, hydrogen-powered cars sound science fiction-esque, but the automotive industry’s top minds are working day and night to ensure that they’re right around the corner.
If you want a flying car, however, check back in 2116.
- The best road trip cars for 2021
- The best infotainment systems for 2021
- AWD vs. 4WD
- Every upcoming electric car
- 2021 Tesla Cybertruck vs. 2021 Rivian R1T