At the turn of the millennium, few people could have predicted the technological advancements we’ve made. Humanity has made strides in computing that have fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us. In the last 20 years, the smartphone has woven itself into the fabric of everyday life. Voiced assistants such as Siri and Alexa streamline errands and tasks that no one wants to do. Big data changes the way that corporations and the government see us. We are in the midst of a perpetual digital revolution.
Nothing puts evolutionary tech in perspective quite like a discussion about the automobile. Namely, what is its place in society’s future? In the last 100 years it has gone from being a luxury to a necessity. People are more mobile. They change jobs and move; they commute longer distances. The automobile is an integral mechanisms in the modern world. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States. There is something decidedly American about the idea of getting in your car and driving on the open road. America is a road trip nation so enamored with freedom that it crosshatches all fifty states in the form of the Interstate System.
Cars are synonymous with technological achievement and ingenuity. Which begs the question: what does the future have in store for the automobile?
Changing the Face of the Industry
1908 marked the year that the foundations of the modern auto industry took shape. Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. The universally efficient fabrication process ushered in a revolution in manufacturing. From then on the automobile was affordable to most middle class Americans.
Over the course of the next century or so, the industry stayed largely static. Individual innovations changed certain aspects of the automobile; but, there were few paradigm-shifting techniques that impacted automotive production as a whole.
Things began to change in the early part of the new millennium. Growing recognition of climate change spurred researchers and R&D departments throughout the industry to investigate renewable fuel sources. Companies such as Anthony Electric, Columbia, Anderson, and Milburn all sought to develop the first widely successful electric car. While these companies, and others like them, made important contributions, the technology available was simply too rudimentary to be financially viable.
In the last decade, the industry has experienced something of a renaissance. Advances in technology mean that alternative cars can compete with their fossil-fueled cousins. Concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and increasing fuel prices have also helped this meteoric rise.
Though innovative companies around the world make impressive progress on their electric cars, no one serves as the poster boy for the industry quite like Tesla’s Elon Musk. For the last decade, the famous futurist and tech titan has almost singlehandedly popularized the electric automobile in the United States. Though the company has popularized these alternatives through such models as the Model S, Model X, and Model 3, some newer offerings promise to change things again.
At a press conference just last week, Musk unveiled two new models in the Tesla lineup. The first is the completely electric Semi which is capable of hauling up to 80,000 pounds up to 500 miles on a single charge. Also on display at the press conference was the Tesla Roadster. Touted as the fastest car in production, the Roadster boasts a top speed of 250 miles per hour.
Get Out from Behind the Wheel
While the advent of affordable electric cars has certainly changed the face of the industry, it’s nothing compared to the self-driving car. Autonomous automobiles will shake the very foundations of the automotive world. In fact, they already have.
New York City might seem like the least ideal place to test a self-driving car. The city is notorious for its traffic and congestion. Yet, General Motors plans to test its autonomous Chevy Bolt in Manhattan in the near future. GM is the first company to do so considering the strict guidelines in place. Each vehicle tested must come with an insurance policy of at least $5 million. While the test represents a huge leap forward in self-driving technology, researchers don’t plan on letting a rogue car loose in the city that never sleeps. Two technicians will ride in the car to monitor performance and, if necessary, intervene to avoid accident or injury.
GM is not the only company testing Level 4 autonomous cars. Waymo is perhaps the most famous of companies working with self-driving technology. Formerly the Google Self-Driving Car Project, Waymo has made significant progress of its own. The company is the first to put fully autonomous cars on the road without a safety driver behind the wheel. Minivans have driven independently on public roads in Arizona. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, plans to expand the test to Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix.
Experts say that using self-driving cars is a matter of public health. Studies show that implementing widespread use of the technology on roads in the United States promises to save nearly 30,000 lives annually. However, there are other public health issues to address before drivers take their hands off the wheel.
With the use of self-driving cars comes a possibility of no-fault accidents. Insurance companies must plan accordingly. Though, this could prove problematic in the face of forced-choice algorithms. In these cases, technology must choose between two negative options such as hitting a pedestrian or a parked car on an icy road. Therein lies one of the biggest issues. Driving is a physical and intellectual process; but, it is also an ethical one. Getting behind the wheel of a car often requires instantaneous and sophisticated decisions. It would be naive to think that the act of driving is only about following the rules of the road.
Automobiles as a Hobby
Does the future autonomous flow of traffic mean the end of the road warrior? Not quite. Once self-driving cars do eventually replace human drivers on streets and highways, driving becomes something of a niche. Hobbyists can enjoy completely different driving experiences.
Modern automotive trends already point to a future where driving is a luxury rather than a necessity. Companies such as Dodge, Chevy, and Ford have all developed models made with enthusiasts in mind. These more specialized cars offer unique selling points right off the factory floor. For example, Dodge rolled out its 2018 Challenger SRT Demon, a car with so much power that it can do wheelies. The car also includes a kit that takes it from street-legal to drag strip-worthy with ease.
Of the vehicles built for hobbyists, none can quite compare to the Alta Motors Redshift MX. It’s not a car but it can still compete with the likes of other specialty offerings from big companies. This completely electric motocross bike has so much power that it’s not even allowed on public roads.
It is hard to believe that the automobile is going anywhere any time soon. Your car is still very much a part of who you are. It serves as part of your very identity. Going forward, though, you should expect your relationship with your commute and your car to change. Do you think that the recent sea changes in the industry will benefit society in the long run? What challenges do you think we will face once the self-driving car replaces human drivers? Will there be a cultural backlash to this change in the world’s highways and byways? Offer up your thoughts and questions in the comments below.