Cars will change more in the next decade than they have in the past century

While the look and feel of our cars has changed in the past 100 years, the way we drive them hasn’t. But fundamental change is coming. In the next decade, not only will the way they’re powered and wired have shifted dramatically, but we won’t be the ones driving them anymore.

Some cars already have basic automation features, but the automotive experiments currently being undertaken by the likes of Uber and Google make up a minuscule proportion of the vehicles on our roads. By 2030, the standard car will evolve from merely assisting the driver to taking full control of all aspects of driving in most driving conditions.

This widespread automation, together with the electrification and increased connectivity of both the car and society, are set to shake up the car industry in a big way, affecting everything from the way cars look and feel, to how we spend our time inside them, and how they get us from A to B.

A very different driving experience

The first major difference we might notice between today’s cars and those of 2030 are their names. Just as Apple and Samsung have taken over a mobile phone market that Nokia and Blackberry once dominated, Tesla, Apple, Dyson, and Google could become the most recognised automotive brands of the future.

They’ll likely look a lot different too. From the outside, the large air intakes and front grills that cool our combustion engines will no longer be needed, while wing mirrors will be replaced with cameras and sensors. Windows could be larger to allow liberated passengers to enjoy the view, or near non-existent to provide privacy. The Mercedes-Benz Vision URBANETIC demonstrates these radical new looks with a modular vehicle that can switch bodies to either move cargo or people.

Cars’ interiors will be much more flexible, some allowing customisation of colour, light, privacy, and layout at the touch of a button. Volvo’s recent 360c concept car envisages a multi-functional space that can transform into a lounge, an office and even a bedroom.

Sun visors will become a thing of the past, with smart glass allowing us to control the amount of entering daylight at the touch of a button. The Mercedes F015 concept car’s doors even have extra screens that can function as windows or entertainment systems. We buy houses in Saratoga Springs

Many cars will be fitted with augmented-reality systems, which will superimpose computer-generated visualisations onto the windscreen or other suitable display areas, to ease the passenger’s nerves from relinquishing the wheel by showing what the car is about to do.

Drivers will be able to communicate with their cars through speech or gesture commands. In high-end models, we may even see some early versions of brain-computer interfaces, which would associate patterns of brain activity with commands to control the car or entertain occupants. Similar technology has already been used to control prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs.

Connective technology

The ever-growing internet of things will become central to how our integrated cars move us around and communicate with the outside world. Sensors designed to recognise and communicate with upgraded road signs, markings, networks of cameras, pedestrians, and other vehicles will allow cars to synchronise their movement, minimising fuel consumption and improving traffic flow. Cars will also be able to help authorities maintain road infrastructure, for example with tyre sensors that notify them of deteriorating road conditions.

When humans choose to take the wheel, technology will warn drivers about impending collisions with other road users, and attempt to avoid them. Improvements in thermal sensor technology are likely to enable cars to see far beyond the illumination range of car headlights. If sufficiently standardised and legislated for, these technologies should substantially reduce the number of road accidents – albeit probably after an initial spike.

While rural drivers will probably still own their cars, cities may move away from car ownership to the use of on-demand vehicles that take the Uber model to the next level. In Moscow, 9m of these journeys are already made daily, more than 30 times higher than at the start of 2018.

Fuels of the future

Multiple countries and cities have announced upcoming bans on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, many by 2030. Older vehicles will still be on the road, so petrol stations are unlikely to disappear by this date. However, car makers are already focusing more and more on vehicles that will support the fuels of the future.

Precisely what that future will look like is unclear. Uncertainty over whether currently popular hybrid cars will be included in vehicle bans may discourage businesses and consumers from investing too much in this path. Fully electric vehicles only make up 2% of the global market right now, but as their price drops below that of petrol cars by the mid 2020s, their market share will surely balloon

By how much depends on to what degree their as yet limited range and charging time can be improved, and how much governments invest in currently patchy electric charging networks. We expect fully electric vehicles to at least be a viable choice for a wide range of drivers by 2030 – but unforeseen groundbreaking technological developments could easily change the future of vehicle fuel. For example, scientists are working hard to solve the production and storage difficulties that currently limit the potential of clean, fast-fuelling and long-range hydrogen-powered vehicles.

The year 2030 might not seem too far away, but a decade is a long time for technology to change. In 2008, the first iPhone had only just been released, and climate change was a background issue for governments and media. Now, technology and environmental discourse are changing at an unprecedented rate. So don’t be surprised if you look back at the cars of today in a decade’s time and wonder how we ever got by.

Five ways AI could make your car as smart as a human passenger

Driving long distances without a passenger can be lonely. If you’ve ever done it, you might have wished for a companion to talk to – someone emotionally intelligent who can understand you and help you on the road. The disembodied voice of SatNav helps to fill the monotonous silence, but it can’t hold a conversation or keep you safe.

Research on driverless cars is well underway, but less is heard about the work being done to make cars a smart companion for drivers. In the future, the cars still driven by humans are likely to become as sensitive and attentive to their driver’s needs as another person. Sound far-fetched? It’s closer than you might think.

Ask your car questions

We’re already familiar with AI in our homes and mobile phones. Siri and Alexa answer questions and find relevant search items from around the web on demand. The same will be possible in cars within the near future. Mercedes are integrating Siri into their new A-class car. The technology can recognise the driver’s voice and their way of speaking – rather than just following a basic set of commands, the AI could interpret meaning from conversation in the same way another person could.

From the screen to your drive

Those with longer memories may remember a talking car that was a regular on TV. Knight Rider and its super intelligent KITT was a self-aware car that was fiercely loyal to Michael, the driver. Though KITT’s mounted flame thrower and bomb detector might not make it into commercial vehicles, drivers could talk to their cars through a smart band on their wrists. The technology is being developed to allow people to start their car before they reach it, to warm the seats, to set the destination on the navigation system, flash the lights, lock the doors and sound the horn – all from a distance with voice command.

Big Motor is watching you

A driver alert system already exists that, through a series of audible and vibrating gestures, tries to keep the driver awake or warn them against sudden lane departure. By 2021 though, there are plans to install in-car cameras to monitor a driver’s behaviour.

If the driver looked away from the road for a period of time, or appeared drunk or sleepy, the car would take action. This might start with slowing down and alerting a call centre for someone to check on the driver, but if the driver didn’t respond, the car could take control, slow down and park in a safe place. The potential to improve road safety is promising, but there are credible concerns for what in-car cameras could mean for individual privacy.

A cure for road rage

Increasingly intelligent and perceptive cars won’t stop at visual cues. An AI assistant has been developed which can pick up on the driver’s mood and well-being by detecting their heart rate, eye movements, facial expressions and the tone of their voice. It’s suggested the car would learn the driver’s habits and interact with them by, for example, playing the driver’s favourite music to calm them down. It can also suggest some nice places to go – perhaps a nearby café or park – where the driver could stop to improve their state of mind.

A butler on the road

As technology is developed to monitor the mood of drivers, the next step may be cars which can act to improve them. Autonomous vehicles which can take over driving when drivers are stressed could change the windscreen display to show photographs or peaceful scenes. Smart glass windscreens could even black out the surroundings entirely to create a tranquil space – known tentatively in ongoing research as “cocoon mode” – where the interior is invisible from outside and the occupants can rest while the car drives. Cars might even dispense snacks and drinks on demand from refrigerated cartridges, using technology that’s under development but not scheduled to make its debut until 2035.

Whether for good or ill, cars are likely to change beyond recognition in the near future. It may no longer be ridiculous to think that the wildest science fiction dreams could be driving us to work in the not so distant future.