2017 was a landmark year for the motor industry. In Britain, our pollution concerns shifted from carbon dioxide to nitrogen dioxide. In Sweden, convoys of self-driving Volvos started roaming the highways. And in America, electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla moved into the mainstream by unveiling an all-electric lorry and ramping up production of its Model 3 saloon.
Predicting the future of motoring has proved notoriously difficult in the past, but it’s possible to gauge patterns and trends from events like the Car Tech Awards 2018. This annual celebration of automotive innovation has increasingly focused on emerging technologies, including autonomous vehicles and mobile communications. So what do this year’s award winners tell us about the future of driving?
We’re long past the days when the only connection between mobile phones and car dashboards was a physical one in a mounting cradle. Today, smartphone mirroring tools like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are the norm rather than the exception. One of 2018’s Car Tech Awards winners was the compact Kia Picanto, whose responsive colour touchscreen beat BMW’s iconic iDrive mouse controller into second place.
Tablet-style dashboards are replacing physical buttons and dials, with the double-width instrument/dashboard screens in new Mercedes-Benz vehicles likely to become the more common format. The new E-Class won Car Tech’s connectivity innovation award, thanks to extensive device connectivity alongside 4G and those twin display screens. Voice control is another burgeoning area, and it’s predicted that virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa will follow us from our homes to our cars in the 2020s. Cars will become wifi hotspots and data hubs, keeping us fully connected when we’re away from home.
Despite a well-orchestrated marketing campaign in the media, electric vehicles are deeply flawed. Manufacturing their batteries consumes scarce natural resources, and the electricity that propels them is often supplied by fossil fuel power stations. Green electricity generation also has a long way to go; wind turbines are ugly and inefficient, solar panels are unproductive in low light, and wave power remains largely untapped.
Fuel cell vehicles represent the endgame for car manufacturers, with pure hydrogen converted into electrical energy. UK motorists can already purchase FCVs like the Toyota Mirai, though its £66,000 price tag is rather steep for a four-door family saloon from a volume manufacturer. Nonetheless, since heat and water are their only waste products, fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai are decades ahead of today’s hybrids and electric cars in environmental terms. Nissan won a Car Tech award for enabling its all-electric Leaf to sell power back to the electricity grid at peak times, but electric vehicles remain a stopgap rather than a long-term solution.
Automotive safety has been led by Volvo for half a century. The Swedish manufacturer has left its boxy estates far behind, but its guiding principles remain unaltered. The company’s widely-praised Vision 2020 plan claims nobody will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by the start of the next decade.
It’s a shock nowadays when a car performs poorly in Europe’s rigorous NCAP crash test programme, since most modern vehicles are designed to protect passengers against high-speed impacts. In terms of avoiding accidents in the first place, even family hatchbacks now feature everything from automatic emergency braking to radar-guided cruise control. The automation of safety functions is part of a five-stage process aimed at removing drivers from the decision-making process altogether…
Autonomous vehicles have been discussed in science fiction for decades, but reality has finally caught up with these predictions. Volume manufacturers like Ford and GM are investing heavily in radar and 5G technology. As motorists get used to ceding control over low-speed braking and lane discipline, semi-autonomous vehicles are increasingly combining radar and GPS to make independent decisions outwith the driver’s control.
Providing the forthcoming 5G network delivers on its promises of 100 per cent connectivity, autonomous vehicles won’t be able to speed or crash. A seamless flow of accident-free traffic should effectively eliminate congestion, while self-driving vehicles will enable their drivers to relax and enjoy some entertainment ‘at the wheel’. The Monday morning commute may be very different a few years from now…