The automobile has long been a symbol of everything great and everything terrible about America. On the one hand: freedom, individualism, power, speed. The taming of millions of miles of varied wildernesses through roads, then highways, then interstates. The capacity of American industry—Pittsburgh’s steel, Akron’s rubber, Detroit’s factories.
But on the other hand: gas-guzzling SUVs. Traffic and sprawl. The abandonment of mass transit. The suburb and then the exurb, with their undeniable ties to white flight and segregation. The decline of the Rust Belt, the near-collapse of the Big Three automakers during the Great Recession of 2008, and the slow death of American manufacturing and blue-collar work.
Now, after four decades of doldrums, things are looking up for American carmakers, in ways that would have been hard to imagine just 10 years ago. Yet the changes ahead won’t reconcile the great and the terrible of the past; instead, the conflicts between freedom and community, power and equity, will play out in new ways. Here’s what that future will look like.
1. Baby Steps Toward Autonomy …
Google, Tesla, and Uber—companies that didn’t even exist when Toyota introduced the Prius, in 1997—have become major players in the auto industry. Both Google and Tesla aim to introduce fully autonomous cars—that is, cars that drive themselves—within the next several years, and Uber recently founded an R&D center in Pittsburgh with an eye toward ushering in our driverless future.
Self-driving cars are expected to be much safer than human-driven ones. But even if the first robot cars hit the roads in the next few years, most of us probably won’t give up driving entirely for at least another 15 or 20 years. In the meantime, traditional cars will gradually take over certain aspects of driving.
Companies have been adding semiautonomous features to cars since the 1990s—things like adaptive cruise control, which uses sensors to adjust a car’s speed based on the traffic in front of it, and automated parallel parking. Some cars automatically stop—or at least slow down—if a driver doesn’t step on the brake in time to avoid a collision, and in certain 2017 Mercedes-Benz models, the driver will be able to change lanes simply by hitting the turn signal for two seconds (the car will take care of the rest). Within a few years, cars may be able to determine when an accident is likely and make adjustments to the cabin—moving seats, closing windows, retracting the steering wheel.
Even better than preparing for a crash, of course, is preventing one. Some vehicles emit warnings when they detect, via cameras and sensors, that a driver is getting drowsy. Future cars might take over for sleepy drivers—or automatically pull to the side of the road and shut down. Biometrics could aid this process. If a car has sensors that can measure a driver’s respiration and heart rate, it could shift into self-driving mode when a driver has a heart attack or passes out.
2. … And Big Leaps
While traditional manufacturers slowly add semiautonomous features, Tesla is taking a more aggressive approach. Last year, an update to the software in certain Model S vehicles added the ability to operate via “autopilot”: The car mostly drives itself, but the driver can take over if, for example, the car attempts to exit the freeway unbidden—as it did during some runs soon after it was introduced last year. Each time a driver intervenes, Tesla registers the correction in its software, which is distributed across its fleet. The idea is that over time, the cars will get better at driving.
Tesla’s autopilot occupies a regulatory gray area, since updates to a car’s software don’t require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s approval—though that could change as the agency rules catch up with technology. Ford or GM would likely never have put such an untested system into service, but Tesla’s tech-forward customers seem willing to take the risk, even if those of us who have to share the road with them would rather they didn’t.
Early this year, Tesla updated its software again to add a way to “summon” your car. The car can turn itself on, open the garage door, and meet you in the driveway like an automotive butler. For now, the feature is meant to be used only on private property, but Tesla promises Knight Rider–style summoning in the future: Your car will greet you at the airport when you return from a trip or sync with your calendar and know where to pick you up after a meeting downtown.
3. Cars That Talk to One Another
Apps like Waze already allow drivers to alert others to traffic jams or accidents. Soon, cars will automatically contribute to a shared mesh of traffic and routing information through vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems. In addition to providing better traffic reports, these systems—through which cars will constantly transmit their location, speed, and other data—are expected to make driving much safer. If a driver brakes suddenly, or makes a blind turn, the car will issue a warning to others nearby to help them avoid a collision. The NHTSA expects vehicle-to-vehicle communications to result in significantly fewer accidents each year. Some cars will soon have built-in systems—they will appear in certain 2017 Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz models—but dashboard-mounted systems, similar to the original GPS units, will also become available.
4. The Car as Conference Room
Once cars become fully autonomous, they won’t need to take the form they have for more than a century. One concept design is the Mercedes-Benz F 015, which transforms the vehicle into a “digital living space.” Inside, seats swivel to face one another, and a series of displays permit passengers to entertain themselves or work. In other words, cars could double as conference rooms—and employers may begin to demand that people use their commutes productively.
The F 015 design is sleek and beautiful—it looks like a silver bullet—but style may become passé in future cars. Autonomous cars work best as fleets rather than as private property, because a car that can drive itself can be put to use even when you aren’t in it, and the tech companies making them prefer to sell services rather than products. Eventually, car ownership could become a thing of the past.
That would mean an end to the pride and personalization of owning a car. Not to mention living with one. Perhaps the garage, that great cornerstone of suburban architecture, will become a relic. Likewise parking spaces and lots, freeing up valuable real estate for greener and denser urban living. (Meanwhile, the exurbs could prosper if people no longer dread a long drive to work.) Your children might give as little thought to the kind of car they ride in as you do to the brand of subway train you take.
As idyllic as it might seem not to have to finance, drive, or park a car, there will be downsides. Once autonomous vehicles are everywhere, letting humans share the roads as pedestrians, bicyclists, or drivers could be seen as too dangerous. Driving conventions like traffic lights and dedicated turn lanes could become obsolete, and transit could develop into a pretzled web of robotics that no human brain can navigate.
5. Where Are the Flying Cars?
Flying cars have been part of our science-fiction dreams ever since Henry Ford pitched an early personal airplane back in 1926—Ford’s aircraft division actually tried to build a “Model T of the air.” Ninety years later, discarded prototypes litter junkyards and collectors’ garages, but no viable mass-market product has ever emerged.
That might still change. The latest candidates include Skycar, a flying-car prototype, and the Ehang 184, an autonomous electric quadcopter introduced at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. In 2013, a company called Terrafugia announced plans for a self-flying car; it expects to have a prototype ready for testing by 2018. A commercial model will take at least another five years.
When they do arrive, flying cars will likely cost at least several hundred thousand dollars. They may replace the Lamborghini or the Bentley as the status car of the super rich. But for most of us they’ll remain a dream, even if not a science-fiction one.