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Auto Future Shock

Visions of the next automobile era are materializing

As you’re sitting on the 405 in any given rush hour, staring at the long metal snake of traffic clogged with a million Nissan Altimas, with BMW 3-Series that look more or less like they did 10 years ago, and thousands of identical-seeming pickup trucks, it’s hard to imagine that cars are ever going to change. Even the Tesla Model S, revolutionary three years ago, feels like last season’s skinny jean.  

But make no mistake, the car of the future is just over the horizon. In the next 20 years, we’re going to see changes in transportation that will rival, and probably surpass, those from the turn of the 20th century, when the automobile first roared into existence. It will transform our lives and surroundings in ways we can’t yet fully predict. Auto manufacturers have plans for any eventuality, and those plans will hit the luxury segment first.

Visions of what this car of the future is going to look like came into focus at this year’s Concours D’Elegance in Pebble Beach, what to the luxury car industry is like Homecoming weekend. If a queen were to have been crowned, it would have been the lipstick-red two-door Maybach coupe concept car that Mercedes debuted. It had onlookers drooling over its beauty and dreaming of the ride inside. The Maybach of the future measured nearly 20 feet long, 17 inches longer than the Rolls-Royce Wraith. It featured gull-wing doors and translucent wheel covers lit by glowing alloy spikes. Its rear window, split by a tapering trunk, provides near-zero visibility, but that’s compensated by high-powered cameras that beam the rear view onto the front windshield.

While that might seem distracting, it’s not – at least theoretically. In this concept of the future, the Maybach drives itself, powered by four synchronous electric motors that generate a stunning 738 horsepower and go from zero to 60 in under four seconds. It could run 200 miles before needing a recharge.

The Maybach’s interior seems a little similar to other recent interiors of the future, which actually makes its arrival even more likely. The floors are lined with pale elm – a mellow-looking wood that Mercedes is actually using in current production models – and the interior is a starship mélange of glowing blue neon displays, contoured chairs, and “sensors” that monitor your vital functions so the car can deliver a seat massage or burst of cool air for your ultimate comfort.

This is probably moons away from the “Futurama”-style little electric pods that most people will occupy in 100 years, but it’s also an achievable high-end dream that accentuates three unstoppable trends in the industry: electrification, automation and, perhaps a little more hidden behind the corporate paywall, a change in our current ownership model.
Let’s examine them one at a time as we journey into the future.

Electric Avenue
The electric-car era has been slow to arrive, for reasons both technological and political. But when the Tesla Model S debuted in 2013, being able to uncouple from the gasoline system – in style – suddenly became the ultimate statement of status. The even more expensive Tesla Model X SUV has seen a rocky launch, but is also now buzzing around the highways. The Model 3, a budget Tesla starting at around $40,000, received hundreds of thousands of pre-orders before even one had rolled off the pre-production line. That’s a testament to Elon Musk’s PR acumen, but also to a consumer hunger for something different than what’s been served up in the past.

Beyond Tesla, electric cars have been slow to appear. The most popular model, the Nissan Leaf, brings plenty of consumer satisfaction for its fuel efficiency and reliability, but is hardly a luxury ride. BMW introduced the quirky i3 and the astonishing i8 sports car, but the i8 has already been discontinued. Cadillac’s all-electric car, the ELR, was a historic critical and commercial bust by auto industry reports.

But a wave of great electric car options will hit in the next two or three years. An initial round of federal and state fuel economy regulations forced American and Japanese manufacturers to step up their gas mileage game. Now, those regulations are bringing aboard Korean and, more significantly, German manufacturers.

There will be no lack of options when it comes to electric driving in the future. Audi, with its slightly sinister slogan, “Progress Through Technology,” is planning a 2018 or 2019 launch of the Q6 compact SUV, which will boast 500hp and a 300-plus-mile electric range. Porsche has confirmed that it will build its Mission E electric sports car by the end of the decade, leading observers to speculate that the next Porsche 911 will actually be an electric car. BMW is getting ready to introduce an electric 3 Series to compete directly with Tesla, and Mercedes has announced a whole raft of coming electrics to go along with its existing electric B-series hatchback, including electric Smart cars, an electric heavy-duty truck, and an electric luxury SUV that can drive 500 kilometers on a single charge.

Electric driving may never be mandatory, or even a majority of cars – even the most optimistic projections from industry observers say that we’ll be at 30 percent electric vehicles on the road two decades from now – but it’s certainly a privilege that more people will be enjoying.

“It’s potentially a really good future,” says California-based EV advocate Chelsea Sexton. “EVs of all stripes are cool and fast and fun and enjoyable and quiet, and all kinds of things that people are generally not aware of. It’s a premium experience for people even if it’s not a premium car.”

Where May I Drive You Today, Sir?
Autonomous driving has been in the news constantly, in the wake of the first “self-driving car death,” when a Tesla, using the “Autopilot” system, crashed into a semi-trailer while its occupant was watching a “Harry Potter” movie. But that has hardly stopped the self-driving march. In August, ride-sharing company Uber began running limited-edition self-driving Volvos through a small swath of downtown Pittsburgh. Every manufacturer has made major investments and forged major partnerships with autonomous-driving tech companies. The future has already arrived.

Self-driving tech will radically transform how we interact with our vehicles. According to Orange County resident Tisha Johnson, senior director of design at the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center in Camarillo, when somebody is passively sitting in a car, they’ll look at the space differently. “When you’re task-oriented with driving, the cockpit becomes the key element of design,” she says. “But now you think of cockpit elements as tertiary, even less important than a secondary mode.”

What that will mean specifically Johnson isn’t entirely sure yet, but, she says, she and her colleagues are focused on “creating forms and shapes that soothe and make you feel good where you are. Maybe the environment needs to occasionally transform to keep you alert.”
That’s a far cry from worrying about cup holder placement. It also doesn’t mean that cars have to be autonomous all the time. When you’re crawling through a commute on the 55, turn it over to the car. When you’re on a weekend jaunt down Pacific Coast Highway, take the wheel.

“That’s what we’re designing around,” says Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz, head of the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center. “Drive when you want to, and don’t drive when you don’t want to. It doesn’t have to be either/or. I really love to drive, but once you’ve tried real autonomous driving, it’s like having a private driver. It’s perfect.”

Weekend Wheels
Perhaps most radically, the car ownership model is getting ready for a profound change. “Owning a vehicle will no longer be required to have a decent quality of life,” Sexton says. “Maybe not in rural Kansas, but anywhere urban and suburban.”

The manufacturers are preparing for this future quite actively, investing heavily in ride-sharing services and app development that will allow their cars to become part of a shared fleet, at least in part. Tylman-Mikiewicz sees a scenario where a luxury-car owner enjoys a vehicle for part of the week and then rents it out on the weekends, possibly so she can try out a different car. “If you actually rent a car from a private individual, that’s a model that resonates better with luxury customers,” Tylman-Mikiewicz says. “You are getting a nice car, and you want to keep it clean.”

This brave new car world is leading to a raft of complicated questions among automotive futurists. Tilman-Mikiewicz says: “If that car isn’t owned by one person, how do you guarantee that it’s always a thing of beauty and that it’s always super-elegant? These are the kinds of things we’re talking about.”

Johnson adds: “We know that we’re going to want people to touch something and for it to feel precious and exquisite. So our solutions become creative in a different way. It’s not going to be about pouring water in the interior like on buses or trains, it’s going to be something else. Those are the questions we’re starting to address.”

This is a shockingly optimistic vision of the future, where cars are safer, cleaner, sleeker, less polluting and, in some ways, less expensive. But lost is the idea of the “romance of the road,” a romance that ended for many after hours lost staring at bumpers on the 405 and 55 and 5 – take your pick. Lost too is a certain degree of control over your own automotive fate. But isn’t that a decent trade-in for never having to gas up and never having to grumble through traffic again? If this future even partly arrives, the romance might be rekindled after all.

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