Folks around Phoenix could be in for a bit of a shock in the coming months, when they start to see a small fleet of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids rolling around with no one inside. Last April, Waymo started running a pilot ride-sharing service using an autonomous version of the minivan; the Google spinoff’s next step is to go completely driverless. If the project proves successful, Waymo will soon expand into other cities nationwide.
While it may be considered a leader in the development of hands-free driving, Waymo is by no means alone. General Motors recently launched its semiautonomous Cadillac CT6 with Super Cruise, a self-driving platform for highways, and plans to produce its first fully driverless model by 2019. Ford will follow two years later with both driverless cars and trucks. By the end of the next decade, millions of Americans — never mind much of the country’s freight — will travel in autonomous and fully driverless vehicles.
When it comes to cars, the future is here. Well, almost. Virtually every aspect of the automobile industry is undergoing rapid change. Goodyear’s prototype Eagle 360 Urban, for example, looks like a beach ball and uses AI and a “bionic skin” that can change shape depending upon road conditions.
For more than 100 years, the automobile has been a central part of American life. It defines who we are and how we live. But there’s a dark side, too: pollution, congestion, and rising road fatalities (of late) due mostly to distracted driving. Worldwide, nearly 1.3 million people died in crashes in 2017, far more than from all wars and terrorist attacks combined.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Volvo has set a corporate goal in which “no one will die in one of our vehicles” starting with models produced in 2020, says Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of the Swedish automaker. Getting cleaner, safer cars on the road won’t be easy, and the first step begins in product development studios where artificial intelligence systems allow designers and engineers to test concepts in virtual reality.
The technologies likely to yield the greatest transformation are electrified and autonomous vehicles, says Xavier Mosquet, a senior analyst with Boston Consulting Group. Consumers have been slow to embrace battery-based vehicles, but that’s about to change as the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use. GM promises to have 25 new all-electric models in its fleet by 2023, while Volkswagen is targeting 50 electric vehicles by 2025. In turn, a recent BCG study forecasts that 50 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030 will be hybrids, plug-ins, or pure battery-electric vehicles.
Odds are that nearly all of them will feature some form of autonomous driving capability, many fully driverless. By taking the driver out of the equation, the cost of using a service like Uber or Lyft would drop so low that millions of Americans, especially those in denser urban environments, won’t bother to own a private vehicle anymore. BCG estimates that by 2030, a quarter of the miles Americans annually log on the road will be inside electrified vehicles operated by a ride-sharing service.
Whether a vehicle cabin is used to catch up with relatives or friends or as an office on wheels, there will be plenty of things to keep passengers busy. The new GM Marketplace, for example, turns a vehicle’s touch screen into a menu of offerings where passengers can pre-order coffee, make a restaurant reservation, or book a hotel room. What’s more, several manufacturers have shown off concept vehicles where the windows are transformed into video screens for accessing the web, watching a movie, or projecting scenery.
This future world of mobility won’t come cheap. Automakers intend to spend a collective $100 billion or more over the next five years on advanced technologies, and they’ll charge more than double that amount for a range of new personal services. And with new audio developments, the next call you receive likely will be from a personal avatar reminding you to pick up a baseball mitt for your son’s birthday.