Vehicles of the future: Technology that's changing the way we drive

October 16, 2020

Learn how technology is shaping the future of vehicles and the way we drive them

A digital screen in a vehicle of the future

When you were a kid, what did you imagine the world of tomorrow would look like? For many people, their vision of the future included towering cities with checkered grids of flying cars in the sky. While flying cars may not be on the horizon any time soon, that doesn't mean that vehicle technology isn't racing forward! Every year, there are new electric vehicles, advancements in autonomous cars, and a wide variety of new gadgets for our current rides. Without a doubt, this technology is changing the way drive, so what could the future hold? Today, we'll discuss the vehicles of the future - read on!

Electric vehicles

In the past, electric cars were only really found in school science projects - small, slow carts powered by the sun. While the concept of electric cars has been around as long as the idea of a motorized, horseless coach, it was only recently that they have proven to be a viable option for transportation. 

As it stands, the current number of electric vehicles on the road in the United States accounts for a small percentage of total vehicles. However, it is estimated by some that as much as 30% of all new vehicles will be electric or hybrid by 2025. In part, this increase is due to the improvements made to electric vehicles in recent years.

Companies like Tesla have made great strides in this field by creating a highly sought-after product that can perform on par with many standard production vehicles. Their reduced operational costs and emissions along with a reasonable price point have made electric vehicles a popular trend in the automotive world. 

Improving electric vehicle batteries

Although electric vehicles have been shown to compete with their combustion counterparts in a number of categories, their range and battery life has always been a concern for consumers. In other words, they may help you save at the pump, but if they can only take you 100 miles before it needs to be charged, it becomes very limited in its capabilities. 

That's why much of the research that goes into improving electric vehicles is focused on their batteries. This involves improving existing batteries, like lithium-ion varieties, as well as developing batteries using other elements, such as nickel, cobalt, and aluminum. 

The end goal, of course, is to improve not only the total capacity of the battery, but also the lifespan. Like all batteries, the batteries in an electric vehicle begin to wear out over time and are unable to hold the same charge. This means that your electric vehicle might take you 300 miles on day one, but only 250 after several years. 

Lastly, because the battery is such a central component to electric vehicles, improvements could also translate to lower vehicle costs in the future. Since 2010, battery costs have already fallen from $1,100/kWh to just $156/kWh. For reference, the battery pack on the Tesla Model S has a 100 kWh capacity. That means a good chunk of the total cost is just covering the battery pack!

With improved manufacturing processes, increased production volume, and overall better battery technology, the electric vehicles of the future could be cheaper and take you further than ever before. 

Solar cars

Although electric vehicles have made great strides forward, they still require a reliable source of electricity to keep them moving. For most people, this means plugging it into an outlet at home, or stopping at a charging station on the road. However, some manufacturers are taking electric vehicles to the next level by tapping into one of the most abundant sources of energy on the planet: the Sun! 

While solar panel technology isn't new, a system capable of reliably powering an electric car is fairly cutting edge. The Lightyear One is one such vehicle that is scheduled to start production in 2021. With its integrated solar array, it can add an estimated 30-40 miles to its range when the sun is shining. That may not seem like a lot, but depending on your driving habits, you may be able to go months without ever plugging it in.

Autonomous "driverless" vehicles

For many people, the thing that makes cars exciting is our ability to drive and control them. There is a thrill associated with the integration of man and machine (when we're not sitting in traffic, of course). However, it is also true that wherever humans are involved, errors are sure to be found. But what happens when we take humans out of the driving equation completely? 

The pros of autonomous vehicles

Fewer accidents. Traffic jams, fender benders, and fatal crashes typically have a common cause: human error. While mechanical failure and road hazards certainly play a part, it is estimated that 94% of traffic accidents can be traced back to some sort of human error. Distracted driving, speeding, failing to signal when changing lanes - all of these things could potentially be eliminated if something else was controlling the wheel. 

Proponents of automated vehicles point to this statistic as a primary benefit to making the switch. If the majority of accidents are due to human error at some level, then removing the human element to driving could possibly reduce the number of accidents, and subsequently auto-related deaths, substantially. 

Reduced traffic. Another proposed benefit to a completely driverless system is the lack of traffic. Think about it: Have you ever been stuck and traffic, watching helplessly as people fail to "zipper" together or merge? While you can place some blame on the layout of the road, by and large it is human error that causes traffic.

In a completely driverless scenario, the software and computers controlling the vehicles would speak to one another in real time. Everyone would always follow at a safe driving distance, there would always be room to merge, and perhaps more importantly, vehicles would always be aware of the other vehicles around it. In other words, the main causes of traffic would simply be eliminated. 

Save money. When you drastically reduce the number of auto accidents, you are naturally going to save money on costs of repairing and replacing damaged cars. When you make driving more efficient and reduce, if not eliminate, traffic, people will spend overall less time in the car. This increased efficiency saves fuel when driving, but the lack of traffic reduces the amount of time you're driving in the first place. 

Public transportation solutions. Today, there are a number of larger cities that have a severe lack of public transportation and no practical way to improve it. However, automated vehicles could be a solution that takes advantage of infrastructure that already exists. Rather than building a subway or rail system, a city could rely on self-driving cars to get where they are going.

The cons of autonomous vehicles

Network bandwidth. Having a completely automated system would certainly require every vehicle to be connected to a network in order for them to communicate with each other in real time. However, controlling a car takes a surprising amount of data, and networks with the bandwidth to do this at scale are few and far between. 

Cost. In the initial phase of implementation, self-driving cars are likely to be incredibly expensive, and likely cost-prohibitive to most people. To solve this, vehicle ownership may change completely, creating a scenario where most vehicles are owned by transportation services.

Cyber security. While software is likely to be safer than humans for the purposes of driving, how safe is the software from humans? Whenever you create a network, no matter how safe it is, hackers and cybercriminals are bound to follow. What happens if a hacker is able to breach the network and control a vehicle? What about a whole city of vehicles? However unlikely it may be, it's something that will have to be considered.

Laws. When it comes to self-driving cars, perhaps one of the largest challenges to implementation resides in the laws we create to govern their use. Simply put, there are few, if any, governments that have established laws for how we would treat driverless vehicles. However unlikely an accident may be, who is at fault in the event of one? Is it the human riding in the car, the software company, or perhaps the vehicle manufacturer? These types of questions aren't so simple to answer, but are likely to be very important in a future filled with autonomous vehicles. 

New technology in today's vehicles

The truth is, we're still a long way out from driverless cars. Electric cars are growing in sales and popularity, but are still a long way from replacing the combustion engine entirely. We've had helicopters for a while, but no serious attempt at a consumer-ready flying car has been successful. 

While those things may be true, that doesn't mean that our traditional cars aren't changing. Before we have cities filled with driverless flying electric cars, we'll start to see upgrades to standard vehicles. 

Augmented reality

One of the most heavily researched areas of improvement for standard vehicles is the field of augmented reality, or AR. Where virtual reality, or VR, is a complete immersion into a digital world, AR uses digital elements to "augment" the real world. 

For example, imagine you had a pair of glasses that featured AR elements. They would be normal in all respects except that there would be some version of a heads-up display, or HUD. Picture translucent signs, symbols, and data that surrounds or overlays the real world you see through the glasses. If you were going for a walk and needed directions to a coffee shop, perhaps you would see a faint arrow when you looked down at the street, guiding you towards your destination. 

This is pretty much the idea behind AR for cars, too. An AR HUD in the window might help you see your speed without having to look down at your dash, indicate GPS directions, help you maintain safe following distances, or even help you keep track of the road in the dark.

While this sort of technology may seem quite futuristic, it has already found its way into a number of production models today

In-car speech recognition

"Alexa, add milk to my grocery list."

"Okay, Google, give me directions home."

"Siri, what's the weather like today? Set a reminder to wear a jacket tomorrow." 

At this point, many of us have gotten quite used to voice commands as a part of everyday life. So that raises the question: When will this technology make its way into our vehicles? 

In some ways, it already has! There are a number of apps you can download on your smartphone that make use of voice commands for navigation, media control, and even for responding to text messages and phone calls. 

While these apps are helpful and can go a long way to reduce distracted driving, they are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to in-car speech recognition. True integration of smartphone-like technology and vehicles is already underway. Apple has Apple CarPlay and Google has Android Auto, which are both on board operating systems that help you control various aspects of your vehicle and are available in many new cars. 

Not only is this technology becoming more and more common, it is one of the most sought after types of technology that consumers are requesting. For this reason, many auto manufacturers are investing heavily in advancing in-car speech recognition. 

A vehicle of the future driving on a road made to look like a circuit board

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Read more: No matter how advanced a car may become, it will likely still need tires! Check out our blog for essential tips to help you maintain your tires!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.