Everyone knows self-driving cars are coming and will upend the automotive experience, but what other jaw-dropping inventions are headed our way? Here I’m talking about the cars of tomorrow and the future of automobiles.
Let’s start with electric vehicles (EVs). Elon Musk, the visionary CEO of Tesla, and when he announced that the company is working on a million-mile battery.
Well, the battery won’t allow you to drive for a million miles without recharging, but it will last for a million miles before it must be replaced.
This is a big step forward considering EV batteries typically last 200,000 miles. With a million-mile battery, the car would fall apart long before the battery goes dead. This also means the owner can sell it or transfer it to a new car, resulting in less pollution and waste.
It’s nice to have a battery that can outlast the car, but what about the headache of charging an EV?
The brains at Huawei are working on a solution. They want to make charging your car effortless and are developing a system for wirelessly charging vehicles.
These charging pads could be placed anywhere, from parking garages to carports—and maybe even on city streets. At some point, we may no longer have to worry about charging our cars. It will just happen.
If we look further out into the future, Daimler and Toyota are developing fuel-cell vehicles, which will convert hydrogen into electricity.
A hydrogen-powered car would emit only water vapor, saving both money and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen can also be produced on site. Already, in the UK, they have refueling stations that produce their own hydrogen on a commercial scale using solar power.
Hydrogen cars typically have longer ranges than EVs, and they only take five minutes to refuel. These are tangible benefits, but hydrogen still has a long way to go. Unlike EVs, which consumers can recharge in their garages by simply plugging them in, hydrogen vehicles lack this infrastructure. Refueling stations are few and far between.
Thirteen companies, including Toyota, BMW, and Daimler, have committed to invest $10 billion to develop hydrogen technology and infrastructure over the next ten years. By 2023, Germany should have 400 hydrogen fuel stations. And California is expected to have 200 hydrogen stations by 2025.
Hydrogen isn’t the only alternative fuel.
In the United States, there are already 175,000 natural-gas-powered vehicles on the road, along with 1,600 refilling stations. Despite being available for some time, however, natural gas-powered vehicles haven’t taken off for several reasons.
They don’t get nearly the mileage that gasoline vehicles do. They are considerably more expensive to buy — and the models available are limited and uninspired.
Methane is another possibility.
In the United States, the oil industry spews 13 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere every year. If we harvested this potent greenhouse gas, it would be enough to power millions of vehicles and homes. And it’s not just the oil industry.
Cow-Powered Car? Okay by me!
Cattle contribute 37 percent of all industrial methane emissions. A single cow produces between 70 and 120 kg of methane per year. With 1.5 billion cattle spread across the globe, this adds up. T
his is why Toyota is even considering harvesting methane from cows. Scientists are working to capture this gas whenever cows burp it up. So, don’t be surprised if cow-powered cars appear on the road one day.
On a more practical level, have you ever forgotten where you parked your car in a crowded parking garage? If you have, you’ll know how infuriating that can be. The good news is that Huawei might have a solution in the works.
The company told me how it’s developing AI that will guide the owner to the correct parking spot using their smartphone. This means no more blindly wandering around the garage searching for your car.
If misplacing your car isn’t bad enough, falling asleep at the wheel is. In the United States, there are roughly 90,000 crashes involving drowsy drivers every year, leading to an average of 50,000 injuries and 800 deaths.
Huawei is working on solving this problem too. Using neural networks, the car analyzes the driver’s facial expressions and sends out an alert when the risk of nodding off is high. This same technology can potentially be used to detect drunk drivers.
Every year in the United States, approximately 10,000 people die because of alcohol-impaired driving, accounting for roughly 30 percent of all traffic-related fatalities. If the AI solution determines that the driver is intoxicated, it could send out an alert or even disable the ignition.
With the rapid developments in autonomous driving technology, we can see cars transforming into entertainment and productivity platforms.
Once cars start driving on their own, the drivers will be free to do whatever they want. This means they can kick back, watch movies, play games, get work done, and even enter virtual experiences. It may become commonplace to virtually appear in one meeting as you’re driving to another.
The interiors of cars will change. People may sit at a table facing one another, like in railway cars. Cars may also become a second bedroom. When people have a long drive, they may choose to travel overnight, saving the hassle of flying.
Speaking of flying, will cars soon be taking to the air?
Sky Drive, a Toyota-backed startup, has already tested its flying car and expects to launch a manned flight within two years. Not to be outdone, the Alibaba-backed startup, Xpeng, just revealed its flying vehicle. This one looks less like a car and more like a giant drone with seating for one passenger.
Hyundai is thinking bigger. It has plans for models that will carry up to six passengers within metropolitan areas. They anticipate entering the market by 2028. Many experts I’ve spoken with believe that the first generation of flying cars will be used mostly for flights ranging from 50 to 800 miles.
If you want to travel between cities, taking a flying car may become a viable option. Flying within cities is a bigger challenge because of concerns around privacy, noise pollution, and safety. Imagine what could happen if a flying car slams into a home or skyscraper.
For these reasons, ground vehicles will remain the dominant form of transportation within most cities for the next decade or so.
A third option is a hybrid autonomous air-ground vehicle.
This would drive like a car, then sprout wings for longer-distance journeys. These James Bond-like vehicles would transform themselves, driving, flying and even floating, depending on the location, regulations, and weather conditions.
Some futurists even predict that vehicles will become modular. People may choose to zip about in a mini car for short commutes, but for longer trips they may add on a sleeper module or extra trunk. These modular cars may even connect together like pods. Want to take a trip with friends? Simply merge your vehicles into one supercar, where you can party all the way to the destination.
New lightweight materials, like carbon fiber, biomaterials, and graphene, may replace steel and plastic when constructing future vehicles.
AI and the future of cars.
As AI takes over and driving becomes safer, there will be less need for rigid frames. Cars may even be built from flexible, rubbery nanomaterials that don’t exist yet. Or cars may end up looking like inflatable bubbles or hovercraft. Nanotech could entirely alter how cars operate.
Someday in the far future, cars might be able to morph into almost any shape and configuration the driver desires. Want a pickup truck? No problem. Your car simply flattens out, creating a bed in the back for hauling stuff. Prefer to go faster, and the car reconfigures itself for speed.
What about cars, AI and cities?
It’s not only the function of cars that will change but their impact on how we live. Today’s metropolitan areas are designed around cars.
Streets are paved and lined with parking spots, which tend to be eyesores. What if we could replace all this ugly asphalt with greenery, making our streets appear more like parks. With the advent of hovercars that float ten or more feet above street level and flying cars that zip from rooftop to rooftop without ever touching the ground, this could be possible.
Our cities might be transformed into Gardens of Eden, with lush thoroughfares, where pedestrians and cyclists could move without having to constantly be on the lookout for motor vehicles. Considering the fact that cars in the United States kill, on average, one pedestrian every 88 minutes, this would save a lot of lives.
Removing cars from our streets would also make cities more livable, but is that the future of cars?
Most people don’t think about noise pollution, but it has an impact on our psychology and physical wellbeing. Electric cars are already much quieter than gasoline-powered vehicles. In the future, we may have cars floating overhead that are not only silent but invisible.
At the University of Rochester, scientists have developed technology that bends light so as to make an object invisible. If we apply this technology to cars, we may not even know they are there. We could be in the midst of a bustling city, but it might appear as peaceful as a country meadow.
Not only could cars disappear from sight, but they may travel at speeds that make a Lamborghini look like a horse-drawn carriage.
People may drive into a Hyperloop-like transportation tube that accelerates their vehicles to 500 mph or more, while on our freeways, cars may be permitted to drive at 150+ mph, as long as humans aren’t behind the wheels.
Once fully autonomous driving systems become widely deployed, governments may be able to increase speed limits without substantially increasing the risk of accidents.
It’s even conceivable that governments will require all vehicles to be self-driving, and people who wish to drive a car may be required to go to special designated areas.
In other words, a human-driven car may become as obsolete as taking a horse and buggy onto the highway.
This is just a slice of what’s around the corner as cars evolve into flexible, intelligent platforms that not only get you to more places faster but reimagine the experience of driving.
Image Credit: ryutarro tsukata; pexels