Observers of the automotive vertical would have seen a lot happening in the past few years. Does Moore’s law apply to transport too? And how will our grandchildren travel?
Over the past five years or so, we have witnessed quite a few car brands celebrating their centenaries. In isolation, you would think that is something that humanity would join in to celebrate. Over five generations of human beings have witnessed the evolution of the horseless carriage from its humble beginnings to the all pervasive, social and cultural icon that it has become now. To the detractor, the automobile can be blamed, almost single-handedly, for every ill that has plagued the human race over the past fifty years. Well, almost. From the crisis over greenhouse gases, the toxic by-products of plastic and rubber processing, to our great hunger for every raw material and ore – you’ve got it, the blame lies with the car.
However, another aspect of the evolution may bring some cheer for future generations. In many ways we are currently at the threshold of a whole new automotive age. You only have to look at the way in which various technologies and ideologies are progressing along their natural progression and you see the beginnings of a fruitful period of convergence happening. Oddly enough, the past five years or so has seen the beginnings of the change.
I believe the single largest change is happening in propulsion systems. The IC engine may still be the best option and will perhaps survive for a couple of human generations, but that’s it. Unless we find some way to combust seawater, the depletion of fuels will spell its end. Crisis and convenience are helping to spawn and impel new technologies into the mainstream, though many of them are not really new. Electric cars and hybrids are the current fad and I would think that solar power cells will develop fast enough to reach the point where a normal car could be powered ONLY on solar power in the next two decades.
But this wouldn’t be much use without the expectation of convergence from other fields. Take something as simple as lighting. After a century of filament bulbs, the new generation of lights are LED powered. More light, less heat, highly reliable, super efficient – the LED is replacing bulbs everywhere, including on the new A8’s headlights. The next point is energy recovery, especially from the braking process, but also from stray engine heat at a later stage. It is happening, more as an adjunct to the electric car than anything.
Another important path is the way in which information technology is both pacing and outpacing the automobile. I’ve seen the internet become part of the car and if the trend continues, the car will be part of the internet too. Your facebook friends will know where you are and if you choose, they can see you, the road or the destinations you go to live. To someone like me, who limits the amount of information I like to see about my life on the internet that may not be considered progress. However, the positive spin offs for authorities are seamless traffic management and the potential to eliminate traffic jams that result from the vagaries of human nature.
Safety technology is a close cousin and many organizations have already made huge strides in that. Volvo Cars had declared that they were aiming for zero fatalities or serious injuries in their cars by 2020. Give them and other car makers a couple of decades more and perhaps road accidents will be a thing of the past.
Some convergences that are happening will not be tangible to the car owner. For instance, I can visualize a scenario a few decades later, where car ownership could be rare. Extended the lease concept could see us paying for usage, in units as small as a single trip. The concept already exists it just has to become mainstream. In production technologies too, we can expect sea changes, whether in new materials to replace high-cost steel and aluminium, or to factories that run without any human intervention or indeed to your ability to specify your car piece-meal from the comfort of your home.
At the end of the day, I hope my grandkids have as much fun on the road as I do. They may not have the thrill of hearing the thrum of our internal combustion engines except on electronic recordings or in car museums. They may never smell the smoke either. But I hope they still have car magazines around for the sake of future car journalists.