The last few years have not been kind to the automotive industry.
The U.S. government bailed out two of the largest American auto companies. Global economic slowdown hurt European carmakers. World vehicle supply chains were disrupted by Japan’s Fukushima disaster.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. U.S. automakers paid back their government loans. Car sales, at least in some areas, are back to pre-recession levels.
In some areas, the automotive industry has overcome a tough past. Elsewhere, it’s still working through an uncertain present. But in both cases, carmakers are looking toward the future with stunning new technologies and innovations.
Here are four developments that are poised to change the way we drive forever.
1. Connected Cars
The term refers to truly connected cars: those with onboard computers that continually access apps and data to improve your driving experience.
With connected cars on the rise, consider the possibilities—some of them already reality—such as the ability to:
- Monitor car performance from your phone.
- Remotely toggle your auto’s features and functions.
- Learn how to drive better based on your past performance behind the wheel.
- Receive alerts when parts need to be replaced.
- Download software updates for maps and media features while on the go.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Keep reading to see how connected cars combine with other technologies to move the industry even further forward.
2. Electric Cars
Electric cars aren’t new. And sometimes, they’re controversial: Companies like Better Place and Fisker went (or might go) the way of the dodo—souring the business case for electric vehicles.
But one company is confounding traditional electric car expectations: Tesla Motors.
Founded by billionaire Elon Musk, Tesla recently had their first profitable quarter—making a convincing argument that groundbreaking technology combined with business acumen could change the automotive industry as we know it.
From its Silicon Valley production facility, Tesla went from making 5 cars a week to 500. The cars are all electric, and the latest model can travel 300 miles on a single charge. When a Tesla does need juice, custom charging stations provide it.
Tesla is shaking up the industry in other ways, too. Unconventionally, it has integrated all manufacturing under a single roof. It employs over 140 robots to cut down costs. Tesla’s roadsters are also prime examples of connected cars: Tesla’s Model S has a touchscreen interface for which developers create apps.
Despite those, however, Tesla keeps rolling right on into a potentially diesel-less future.
3. Driverless Cars
Driverless cars go one step beyond connected cars. They use sensors, cameras and onboard computers to remove humans from the equation entirely. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only real viable player in this space isn’t a car-maker at all. It’s Google.
Google’s driverless cars have traveled over 500,000 miles without a crash—a rate comparable to human drivers.
A scanner on the car’s roof sends out light pulses that are read by an onboard computer to determine the car’s position. This data is combined with software that controls steering, acceleration and braking. It’s all supplemented with data from sensors and cameras on the car.
The technology isn’t close to commercial prominence. (Though, Google boss Sergey Brin claims it’s only five years away from being a reality for many.) However, it has the potential to not just change driving, but a host of auto-related industries. After all, everything from insurance rates to speeding tickets might be things of the past if fewer errors (and humans) are involved.
4. Big Data
So, cars are generating and accessing tons of data. They’re using that data to provide better driver experiences and, in some cases, drive themselves. But the infrastructure that accesses and sorts through that data is equally important. And it affects far more than the in-car experience.
Ford, in particular, is using big data tools and tactics to revolutionize every level of the car industry. For instance, the company is employing rigorous statistical analysis to the business side of the automotive industry, finding better ways to tweak everything from how cars are designed to how dealers manage inventory.
Parts suppliers to large automotive outfits are also using data to streamline and improve manufacturing productivity—improving capacity and output without increased investment.
And business isn’t the only thing big data improves. Performance and safety see big gains when big data is in play—as shown by how Volvo compares car maintenance issues with the vehicle’s driving history and geo-location data.
All in all, automotive companies today are doing what their vehicles do best: moving forward.
What technologies do you think will shape the automotive industry’s future? Let us know in the comments!
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Photo courtesy of Takashi(aes256) via Flickr.