The cars of the future sound amazing but the best tech isn’t just around the corner

Hey Siri, drive me to the nearest car-charging unit

The history of car development has mostly been about the evolution of the engine and the aesthetics. Cars are always becoming faster, more efficient, and their designs change with the times. Although most progress has related to how well a car drives, new technologies have worked their way into features that are becoming commonplace. The 1978 Cadillac Seville was the first car to use a microprocessor just to show your mileage. Fast forward to the present and we’re using rear cameras to see what’s behind our vehicles; we use built-in GPS systems for navigation; and some cars are able to park themselves.

So what comes next? Looking at announcements from CES 2016 and major car trade shows it seems there are some features that everyone wants to include in the latest models. We’re saying goodbye to car keys as our smartphones take on the role and Kia Motors want us to use fingerprint scanners to unlock their cars. Every manufacturer wants to modernise the interior of their cars by digitising everything. New models and pretty much all concepts are getting rid of traditional dials and replacing them with touchscreens. Soon we’ll be seeing iOS and Android compatibility in our cars and the latest concept cars promise to be connected to the internet and to other vehicles. These are advances that can happen today. But what happens tomorrow?

Fuel alternatives

Electric cars are already here and Tesla is fast becoming a household name despite their current price-range. Electric cars used to perform poorly but the times have definitely changed; now they’re fast, quiet, and slowly becoming more affordable. How we actually generate the electricity in the first place is still a major problem for pollution and climate change but taking all the gas-guzzlers off the roads is the priority. The final stumbling block for mass adoption of the technology is how often the car needs to be charged but even this is being overcome. Volkswagen’s BUDD-e concept minivan can travel 300 miles on a single charge and only takes 40 minutes to recharge fully. Solar panels on the roof keeps the battery topped up, which will probably become a standard feature in cars.

Volkswagen BUDD-e. Image © Reuters

Not everyone sees electric cars as the answer though. Toyota, when they aren’t making pointless wooden concepts, are firmly sticking to their view that hydrogen is the future. At CES 2016 they unveiled their FCV Plus concept that generates electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell. If this technology could be made as efficient and safe as possible then it may well be the best solution. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe after all. But what might end up being most important is how we solve our energy demands for all walks of life. Promising progress is being made in nuclear fusion technologies, which could give us an incredibly powerful and clean source of electricity for powering our cars and everything else.

OK Google, drive me to the bank

Self-driving cars are on the roads but it’s still early days and it will be a few years before they become the norm. It might be sooner than you think though; robotics experts predict that cars will be fully-automated within 25 years. Google tends to be the company most people associate with self-driving cars but traditional car manufacturers are already preparing for a driver-less future.

Ford are ahead of the game in terms of the traditional manufacturers and will likely release fully-automated vehicles before the others and in a time frame similar to Google’s efforts. Most of the press we see about live-testing on roads comes from Google but Ford actually use a purpose-built city to test their self-driving cars. Other manufacturers may be working on driver-less technology in secret but a few are making their ambitions known. Kia Motors want to have their own self-driving cars available to the public by 2030, which will probably be later than Google and Ford but before other competition. They’re pouring £1.4 billion into this effort over the next 2 years and have permission to test their cars on Nevada roads.

Image © Rinspeed
Image © Rinspeed

Tomorrow’s world

If concept designs and futurist tech have taught us anything, it’s to keep our expectations in check. We’ll definitely be connecting our cars to our smartphones and giving up petrol. But self-driving cars? One of Google’s cars recently crashed into a bus. They’re not going to be publicly available for decades. Hydrogen fuel cells are a great idea but they need to be perfected. Electric cars are still expensive and still have a negative impact on the planet when we’re burning fossil fuels to charge them in the first place.

Self-driving cars, alternative fuels, and other NextBigThings™ in car technology are a long way off. We should see them in our lifetime, but over the next few years we’re just going to witness cars becoming more connected and smart, but not smart enough to be the designated driver after a particularly rough night.

Main image © Reuters