For about a hundred years, the car has been largely the same – a combustion engine, four wheels, and someone to drive it. Over time though, it’s evolved: engineers have added life-saving safety features like doors, airbags and ABS; utilized efficient, light-weight materials like aluminum and carbon-fibre; and designers have made them look and sound and feel sexy and exciting and full of character; but the formula has remained the same. In fact the very definition of a car or an automobile involves the combination of a vehicle with four wheels that is powered by an internal-combustion engine.
Now though, we are about to change that definition; the industry is about to launch the “car” into two new directions. Two factors of the formula are about to transition. First, vehicle propulsion will shift from being powered by internal combustion to electricity; and second, vehicles will be primarily operated not by a driver, but by themselves. And by changing these two key components, we are going to change not just how humans interact with vehicles, but even human behavior itself.
Electric vehicles are clean, they’re efficient, and they save the planet. We all seem to know this, but for some reason electric vehicles haven’t been widely accepted. They’ve been criticized and mocked for being expensive, unsafe, heavy, and lacking in performance. On top of all that, super inconvenient – there was a dearth of charging infrastructure, leading to the dreaded ‘range anxiety.’ All very true and very relevant points. Which is why it’s no surprise that fossil fuels have been the propellant of choice since the early 1900’s. Motor vehicles were cheaper, easier to “recharge,” and much faster than a horse. So EV’s haven’t truly been a viable alternative to gas-powered cars, they haven’t captured the hearts and souls of car owners, they haven’t inspired the creativity of engineers and designers and entrepreneurs. Until now.
In 2012, little-known Tesla Motors sent a ripple through the entrenched behemoth of the automobile industry when it launched the Model S. Until then, known for producing just a single model, an electric roadster, Tesla attempted to disrupt the industry by offering an electric sedan that was well designed, beautiful, and appealing not just to eco-conscious consumers, but car-lovers as well. And it did. For two years in a row, Consumer Reports ranked it “best overall car,” and last year, Model S broke the same publications’ rating system, earning a score of 103 out of 100. In 2013, it exceeded the NHTSA safety rating system by physically breaking the crash-testing equipment, earning a theoretical 5.4 out of 5 stars. But it wasn’t just safe, and reliable, and beautiful; in 2014, Model S became the fastest production four-door car in the world. MIT Technology Review’s Smartest Company of 2015 even eradicated range anxiety by building a network of ultra-quick ‘Superchargers,’ and developed technology to swap out discharged batteries for a full one in less time than it takes to fill a tank of gas. Tesla was making a compelling argument for electric mobility, changing the perception of EV’s almost overnight, a case that institutions like Volkswagen and General Motors had been struggling to make for years.
So how was such an unknown, an automotive baby, capable of all this while giants struggled? Most major automobile manufacturers are several decades old; in fact the youngest company in the list of top 10 producers in the world is 67 years old – ancient. In technical terms this means large, complex management and operations structures, and varied stakeholders; in practical terms this means car companies don’t take risks, and innovate sparingly. They are scared to innovate in fear of ostracizing their customer base, and what novelty we did see was temporary, through one-off prototypes that fans begged for, but never came. And that’s why Tesla was able to do something so revolutionary. They didn’t have a customer base. Their only risk was being laughed out of the industry for attempting to tackle titans, and Elon Musk clearly wasn’t afraid of that. Tesla didn’t need to worry about what everybody else had to worry about, they had a clean slate and their job was simple – make a great car.
It’s true though, Tesla is an outlier. Some have come and gone, Fisker Motors for one, but the promising sign is that others are arriving, most notably, BMW’s ‘i’ range. And those Apple Car rumors just won’t go away. What this means is that electric vehicles are at the confluence of technological capability, price, and market acceptance, and that’s a powerful place to be. Tesla is not just excelling at the game, but it’s writing the rule book. Today you can get an electric car that goes from standstill to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, with a range of over 250 miles, 7 seats, 0 emissions, and more technology than a Mercedes S-Class, all from a company that didn’t exist just over a decade ago. This is the future of the automobile. This is what the car of the smartphone generation should and does look like. Combustion seems, and is, archaic. We’ve been burdened by the legacy costs of customer expectation, gas-station infrastructure, and technological blinders for decades. And Twenty years from now, it will be incomprehensible that we burned fuels for transportation; and cars in their current form will be incomprehensible too; because the final piece in the jigsaw that is the new formula of the car is also here – Autopilot.
The term ‘generational change’ has been used to describe such transitions as those from open to closed vehicles, or from manual to automatic transmissions; but now we are on the verge of the most significant generational change in automobile history since the invention of the automobile itself – from driven to driverless cars. This is significant not just in the effect it will have on convenience, but also on the behavioral changes humans will experience as a result. This advance is akin to the mobile phone – the wired telephone had been around for decades, and it’s invention had a transformational effect on the way humans communicated, but it was only once mobile, internet-capable devices broke through did the industry contribute the next wave of such a profound impact on our daily lives. The autonomous car is the smartphone of motor vehicles. This revolution is so imminent that the first generation to never drive a car has probably already been born. It is not inconceivable to think that 18 years from now, would-be drivers won’t be getting in line to get their licenses, but will be driven around by an Apple or Google algorithm.
Just a few weeks ago, Tesla launched a feature called Autopilot, which means that today, a Model S can silently power and steer itself down a highway, change lanes, avoid collisions and parallel park itself. Regulations permitting, it could even drop you off at your doorstep while it reverses itself into its garage, while a snake-arm charger plugs itself in, giving you a fully charged vehicle in the morning, when it will have heated or cooled the interior, and pulled around to your door to drive you to work. It’s just SO damn cool. It’s space-age. And sooner than we might realize, humans won’t need to have any input at all. In fact it will likely be considered dangerous for a human to control a car. It is ridiculous really; large, heavy, metal boxes hurtle down roads at fatal speeds controlled by fallible, distractible humans. Disaster is literally eternally impending. But computers are less prone to distractions, temper tantrums, and mood swings. Computers are also quicker at reacting, can be swapped out when they get old, and can be improved upon, unlike eyes for example. And when the science is perfected, we will have achieved what Musk calls ‘generalized full autonomy.’
Slowly, and over time, cars will evolve into almost indistinguishable pods, requiring minimal human input. The ‘pod’ will know where to go, the fastest way to get there, and what music you like. Pods will park themselves, clean themselves, and charge themselves. We may not even own our own pods. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick once reportedly said that if Teslas are autonomous by 2020, he would buy all of them, all 500,000 that Tesla are projected to produce (Kalanick didn’t get a call back from Musk). Which points towards the fact that Uber or even Tesla itself could be the ultimate transportation company, replacing what we know to be ‘the car’ by providing on-demand intervention-free mobility services. And being driven means that we don’t need to mindlessly focus on the road, giving us time to work, read, and write and to eat, drink and socialize; the car will be that ‘third place’ between the home and the office.
So “Tesla Mobility Solutions” really isn’t too far away, which is quite a shame, because humanity has grown to love and connect with our cars almost like they were living, animate beings with personality. It’s silly to think about; we don’t connect with our toasters or our lamps. Both are tools, just like the car; but with the car, humans seem to feel and express emotion, christening them names, and referring to them as ‘she.’ Cars of the future will be safer, smarter, cleaner and faster. But great things often come at a cost. Our affection for cars will wane, as they morph to personality-less capsules, and we’ll lose a piece of culture and history. As humanity goes ‘post-automobile,’ going to the races or on a Sunday drive or arguments over directions will be things of the past. But most of all, and possibly the reason for our connection, the car gave man a sense of freedom and adventure, and by reformulating the ideal of the car, we lose those two very important virtues, and that is what is likely to be this advancement’s greatest casualty.
Zal Bahadurji has a Bachelor of Science from Babson College, has experience in the design and manufacturing industries, and is passionate about technology, automobiles, and writing.