The Future of Car Tech: Efficiency, Automation, and Sharing

The coming changes to the machines, software, and ownership systems that shape how we hit the road

The coming changes to the machines, software, and ownership systems that shape how we hit the road


The car was a major improvement over the horse, but since then, what? This argument -- that car innovation has more or less stagnated -- has been advanced by a few economists, most notably Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who say that our economic downturn has been, at least in part, the result of recently slow technological progress, nothing on the order of what happened a century ago.

But at the ongoing Consumer Electronics Show, the ongoing Detroit Auto Show, and in a special report from Technology Review, signs point to a coming era of changes -- big and small -- that will remake how we drive cars, and, also, who will own them. Here's a breakdown of what's on the horizon.

Changes in the Machines

Many of the improvements to the mechanical systems of cars are focused on making them more efficient, and on making those more efficient vehicles easier for people to own and use. Ford, for example, demonstrated a home solar power kit at CES. As The Economist reported:

The 150 square-foot (14 square-metre) array, to be installed on owners' houses, should feed as much power to the grid as the average driver ever needs fully to recharge his car's battery. Panels on roofs in rainy Seattle might allow 12,000 miles (19,300km) of driving each year; denizens of sunny Tucson may squeeze out 15,000 miles or more.

The solar kit will set a Ford owner back around $10,000 (the price would be higher were it not for American federal incentives). It comes with a 25-year guarantee--22 years more than the warranty on the car.

Additionally, Ford introduced a super-efficient plug-in hybrid, the Fusion Energi, which is said to be more efficient than the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, though details for making a full comparison are still not available.

As for the Leaf, Nissan's four-door all-electric sedan, this year the company plans to open a plant in Tennessee that will build 150,000 vehicles a year. The Leaf's engine isn't the only aspect of the car for which Nissan had sustainability in mind -- the car's interior fabrics are made out of recycled bottles.

The Next Age of Car Computers

Coming out of CES this week were excited reports of the way new cars will integrate smartphones into their entertainment systems, porting in music and games, and a new in-car version of Facebook that will be available in Mercedes beginning next year. Additionally, car computers are also gunning at fuel efficiency, as Mahendra Ramsinghani reported:

Ford's idea is to send data from your car to Google's data centers, which would then predict where you are headed every time you key the ignition. Google might predict, say, that there's a 59.24 percent chance you're headed over to Bob's house. A hybrid car might use a map of low-emission zones to determine when to switch to battery power as you drive. Or the algorithm could pick a fuel efficient path with few hills, no rain, and the least traffic.

"Fuel optimization depends on the topography, traffic patterns, and how a customer drives their car," says McGee. "The cloud will allow us to use these three points that historically were not aligned in real time."

But that is barely a wisp of the possible changes that may come as car-computer technology becomes more advanced. As Thilo Koslowski writes:

Over the next 10 years, continued evolution in sensors, computing power, machine learning, and big-data analytics will bring us closer to the goals of zero accidents and real-time traffic management. Cars that are aware of their own location and the location of other vehicles will "self organize": they will talk to one another and to the infrastructure in order to optimize traffic flow, minimize congestion, reduce pollution, and increase general mobility. Imagine a future in which even a 90-year-old person can remain mobile over long distances in a car that drives itself. That may mean more visits from the grandparents--and it might also mean that the car could drive them straight to a hospital in a medical emergency.

It's this crossbreeding of Silicon Valley and Detroit tech that portend to upend driving as we've become used to it more than any other.

Will We Learn to Share?

The combination of self-driving vehicles and web-based sharing systems may mean that far fewer cars are needed. Conor Friedersdorf wrote here on The Atlantic Tech just before Christmas that driverless cars could mean the end of parking -- instead, we could collectively own far fewer cars that are always in use. The first whiffs of this have already come, not through driverless vehicles but because of car-sharing sites such as ZipCar (in which the company owns the car) and RelayRides, which enables you to rent cars from willing neighbors, much like AirBnB but for cars, all of which are part of the much larger trend toward a "sharing economy," facilitated by online systems.

One Thing That's Sure to Lag: The Legal Regime

All told, the changes may not best the leap from horses to cars, but they are big enough to undermine many of the legal systems we rely on for things like insurance, not to mention criminal law. If a car doesn't require a driver, can a 12-year-old "drive" to his friend's house? Can a drunk person drive home from a bar? How will insurance work if people share driverless cars? Courts and legislators will be sorting those out for years to come.

Update 9:09 AM: NPR's On Point had a great segment last night about the future of the car, talking with Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of research and advanced engineering. You can find and listen to that here.

Image: Reuters.