Future of Cars, in 10 years down the line

Concept Car Design for 2020

“It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Sure, it’s a wry remark about the accuracy of superfluous prognostication but that doesn’t stop human beings from seeking to peer past the horizon. From trying to plot a course through years of academia to sorting out what’s for dinner, we’re always looking expectantly to the future.

One way to qualify the passage of time is through technology eras, each hallmarked by the progression of transportation — from steam engine to internal combustion, jet propulsion, and so on. This is why flying cars and robot-piloted taxis remain a staple in science fiction narratives. But putting the Jetsons aside for a moment, what’s actually in store for the automotive world in the next few years?

It’s difficult to make predictions, but what the heck: Prognosticate with me for a bit, will you?

1 year out: 2017

Head’s up: the cars of the not-so-distant future are being made today. Automakers have been hard at work testing tech that will appear in the car of tomorrow for some time, and we’re seeing the results already. Ten years ago, cars with built-in Bluetooth, navigation, and parking sensors were the domain of top luxury vehicles. Now even the most affordable econo-box has these things, as options at the very least.

Next year, we can expect even more everyday technology features to come as standard equipment, notably online access. General Motors has been blazing a trail with its OnStar connectivity for decades, offering in-car connectivity for all sorts of services. This can now turn cars like the Cheverlot camero into a roving 4G LTE hotspot. Similarly, FCA and its vehicles access the interwebs through Uconnect for all their connectivity needs.

2 years out: 2018

Further along the foggy path of time, it’s clear that autonomous driving will be a part of our automotive existence. We have seen grand demonstrations from Audi of RS7 sedans lapping Formula 1 courses and driving 500 miles, but these still seem like projects for the far future. What about sooner? As is turns out, many autonomous functions have crept into our lives under the label of driver-assist features: things like lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and self-braking systems.

Bosch has also demonstrated its ability to have all these systems communicate with its traffic jam assist technology. This system, with the help of a stereo video camera (to perceive depth the same way our two eyes allow), traffic jam assists makes the gridlock under 35 miles per hour slightly more bearable. Autonomous cars, where we push the power button, enter a destination, and then open the newspaper, will still be a challenge by 2018. But driver-assist technologies will make our cars feel like they drive themselves.

5 years out: 2021

Even so, today’s new tech will be old hat by 2021. In car connectivity? In five years, the very idea of a car without a built-in internet connection should be as absurd as buying a laptop without Wi-Fi today. And you’ll speak to dumbfounded youths about songs coming on the “radio” while they remind you that cloud-based music libraries are available with a simple voice command. (You will not like this. You will lament the day music died — when Zayn Malik left One Direction to become Prime Minister.)

By 2021, the first production self-driving vehicle should be for sale. In 2014, Elon Musk said fully autonomous cars should be on the road in five to six years. And the folks at Ford, Google, and other companies have made similar projections. The challenge, of course, will be communicating to the other autonomous and human-piloted cars on the road.

10 years out: 2026

What lies beyond? Short of the massive class schism predicted by Fritz Lang’sMetropolis, cars should certainly still be around by 2026, but they will have certainly changed enormously. Automakers like Audi and Mercedes-Benz believe that in 10 years, fully autonomous driving will be sophisticated enough for regular use. Perhaps we’ll even have the legalities and moral quandaries of self-driving cars sorted out by then.

If so, cars will have to be accommodating for the hands-off moments. Volvo, heavily exploring self-driving car technology, is preparing for this eventuality with ideas like itsConcept 26 design study. This demonstrates how a car’s cabin will be configured to change depending on the driving mode — kick back and relax, watch a film, or connect to the Internet and work in a mobile office.

This idea still seems fanciful today, despite the great leaps we’ve seen in recent years. Bosch’s vision of autonomous driving is more realistically rooted, believing that full autonomy will be relegated to highways, with drivers needing full control only around local streets.

And with such a set up, a fully autonomous highway system built to work with our current infrastructure doesn’t seem that far fetched. The future may be impossible to predict, but we’re the ones making it; it’s up to us to decide what we want to happen.

Except flying cars. We’re never getting those.