When people talk about “tech” in the world of cars, a few things normally come to mind. People think of Elon Musk, Tesla, and the seemingly distant future of autonomous cars. Such topics of conversation, while certainly important factors of technological innovation in the automotive industry, are by no means exhaustive or inclusive. The transportation industry is one that is rapidly changing, and that will go through many iterations and stages before we reach the fully autonomous and electric world that so many desire. In this blog post, I will attempt to paint a more holistic picture of current technology in the automotive world, and relate it to the larger picture of the path that’s pushing transportation forward.
Fully electric power is undoubtedly the direction that the automotive industry is headed. With companies like Tesla leading the way, electric cars are becoming more and more accessible to the average consumer. There are still, however, many hurdles that electric cars must overcome until the gas powered engine can be completely replaced. Price and ease of production, for example, are the biggest issues. At the current moment, batteries powerful enough to power large and small cars for extended amounts of time are still extremely expensive and difficult to produce. This ensures that electric vehicles still remain out of the price range of many consumers, and with a long waiting list to purchase a Tesla Model 3, (Tesla’s most inexpensive electric vehicle) even the cheapest of options remain difficult to purchase. Furthermore, the infrastructure to support electric vehicles across the country is simply not in place yet. Charging stations are few and far between, and take several hours to fully charge a car – a huge hurdle for electric vehicles when making long journeys. This has created an interesting transitional period for the automotive industry. Nearly all major car manufacturers are investing and researching electric vehicles, and in the meantime, many have implemented hybrid powertrains to supplement the traditional gas powered engines. When someone says the word “hybrid,” what type of car typically comes to mind? Odds are, you thought of something like this.
But you probably didn’t think of something like this.
Pictured above is the Porsche 918 Spyder. Starting at over $1 Million, and producing 887 horsepower, this is the most expensive and powerful car that Porsche has ever produced. Porsche is able to achieve this massive power output through the use of a traditional gas powered V8 engine coupled with two electric motors. The electric motors provide extra power in the areas that the V8 engine lacks, such as during initial acceleration and when the car is changing gears, and can even be used to power the car without the gas engine at all, turning the car into a fully electric vehicle. This same formula of using electric motors in order to supplement a gas engine has been used by McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW, all for the same reasons – fast and immediate power and increased fuel efficiency. This is undoubtedly a trend that we will continue to see from more and more auto manufacturers to improve power and efficiency until fully electric vehicles become more readily accessible.
It seems clear to me that the future of cars lies in fully autonomous vehicles. Tesla, Ford, GM, Google, and others have all made significant investments that have lead to great leaps forward in the world of autonomous vehicles in the past several years. This technology uses cameras and sensors to analyze the road around the vehicle and direct it in a way that abides by traffic laws and keeps all the passengers in the car safe, all without any intervention of the driver. Even in its early stages, these complex sensors and cameras are far better at avoiding collisions than their human counterparts. The technology and regulation behind such an innovation, however, is still several years away from any sort of full scale implementation that could change the way the roads today look. In the meantime, however, much of the technology in these fully autonomous test cars has trickled down to many of the cars on the road today.
First implemented by Tesla, many luxury carmakers such as BMW, Mercedes Benz, Audi, and Land Rover now offer a feature called “Adaptive Cruise Control” as an option in their vehicles. This is a more sophisticated form of the traditional cruise control feature offered in every car for years now. Adaptive Cruise Control will not only set your car to stick to a certain speed, but it will keep track of the car in front of you, braking when it brakes and accelerating when it accelerates, along with controlling the steering wheel for you, keeping you in your lane. This also has massive safety implications, as cars equipped with this technology are able to swerve or stop in order to avoid a collision without any intervention of the driver. Safety regulations currently require that the driver keep his/her hands on the wheel at all times, and the driver is still needed to make turns and more complicated maneuvers, but this is certainly a large step closer to the driverless autonomy that I hope to see on the road one day.
It’s easy to think about a world of fully electric and fully autonomous cars zooming around, efficiently and safely carrying passengers from one destination to the next, as the far distant future. Many feel as if many benefits of the technology improvements from early stage autonomous or electric vehicles will not be seen until the products are rolled out to the public on a larger scale. This, however, is not the case. Cars are already becoming faster, smarter, safer, and more efficient every year, and although the transition to the world described above will be a slow one – we are already closer than we think.