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From Station Wagons to Smart Cars — The Quarter Mile

Automobiles have shaped the modern world more than any other invention, and cars have come to mean much more than merely a means of transport.  

We have two major developments from the late 19th century to thank for modern-day automobiles. The first was the internal-combustion engine, originally used to power horseless carriages. The other— the technology required to extract and refine petroleum, providing a supply of liquid fuels which were well suited for motor vehicles. Because of these breakthroughs, cars became a product of manufacturing feasibility and thus, they sparked economic growth. The automotive industry created jobs and provided mass mobility.

Many decades later, a similar dynamic is still alive in the US, Europe, and several other industrializing nations. In India, automotive transportation expanded rapidly owing to low-density rural regions, wide-open spaces, and a wealth of natural resources. This approach to personal mobility endures even in today’s far more populous world of megacities, congestion, and resource constraints. Automobile use is growing globally even as many nations invest in the advanced transit systems and high-speed rail, which are better suited for a crowded planet.

Nearly all of the increase in car ownership is in the developing world. The future of automobiles is therefore shaped more by the needs and capabilities of emerging economies, than by the desires of mature economies that are, for the most part, satisfied with today’s vehicles and the personal mobility they provide.

In our current scenario, computers, communications networks, cameras, and other electronics have become commodities that are now poised to bring a groundbreaking change to automobiles and transportation at large.

Perhaps the best-known example of this transformation is Google’s research on self-driving cars. These experiments inspire a vision of autonomous robot cars that replace drivers with systems that rely on cameras, radars, and other sensors- guided by detailed maps. Meanwhile, automakers are incrementally offering partial automation through features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic braking in certain situations. For now, these features involve adding capabilities that assist- rather than replace- the driver. The desired result is that increasing levels of automatic control will lead to full automation over time.

Another key innovation involves connecting automobiles together and to other devices through specialized wireless networks. Known as v2x connectivity, this approach uses dedicated short-range communications for vehicle-to-vehicle (v2v) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (v2i) networking. Connected cars will also sense other mobile devices, such as a pedestrian lost on a cell-phone call or a smartphone-equipped cyclist approaching from around the corner.

It is very likely that the future of transportation will be connected and automated. Cars will not be singular robots that independently drive themselves but rather, they will be networked to exploit the power of v2x systems. This, combined with onboard sensing will maximize safety.

It will take some time for this vision to be realized. It is also unclear whether commercially successful systems will debut in India, with both libertarian and litigious tendencies, or in nations that are more centrally planned and in greater need of radical technology change. What is clear is that the race is on to develop automobiles of the future and that the gains for consumers and businesses—as well as for safety and efficiency—will be vast.

Regardless of where and how automated transportation emerges, cars will join the “Internet of Things,” and we will see an explosion of forms and functions that are unimaginable as of now. Many vehicles might still look a lot like existing cars, but novel designs very likely will fill the streets. They could range from pods for solo travellers to larger vehicles built to move groups of people or deliver a variety of goods. Clearly, the next generation of sophisticated vehicles is just around the corner and we’re very excited to see what’s coming next.