That dream may take a few more years to come true, but in many ways, the future is already here.
Electric vehicles, car-sharing and autonomous driving features are already available. Bigger changes will come as people’s comfort level catches up with existing technology and when cities and roadways can provide the needed infrastructure to manage it safely.
According to Ray Eby, vice president of 3M Automotive Electrification, it’s more complex than just adding features to your car. “We’re working with the mobility ecosystem to change how people interface with the car,” he says. “We’re making sure the infrastructure is the right one for safety around the world.” Car manufacturers and other businesses will work with governments to develop electric charging solutions and to ensure autonomous vehicles are able to read signs, lane markers and sense what’s around them.
What are some of the new ways travel may change? Most experts predict a move toward electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. Also, fewer people will want to own a car when they can use a variety of mass transit and mobility service options.
Electric vehicles are already on the road. As many countries strive to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions and look to eliminate dependence on gasoline, manufacturers are focusing their energy on making more electric cars.
Right now, experts contend that market acceptance for zero-emission vehicles is lagging behind the commitment of government expectation. The range of battery electric vehicles, paired with the amount of time needed to recharge them, makes ownership less than desirable for most consumers.
The path to fully electric is filled with hybrid options. Many new vehicles come with options that rely on some gasoline. And, regardless of the mix of electric and gasoline, lightweight solutions become even more important.
Hybrids have all the benefits of both gasoline and electric vehicles – efficient acceleration from the electric battery and the ability to drive long distances without a charge. And hybrids have the added cost and weight that comes with carrying two propulsion systems.
Autonomous vehicles are also on the near horizon, with many vehicles already using some smart car technology. Most experts predict we’ll have to wait more than 10 years for fully autonomous vehicles, but you can get some help with parking, blind-spot monitoring and lane correction already.
The three primary technology features of autonomous vehicles are sensors, connectivity and software. Sensors such as cameras and light-detection systems are already in place in some cars and are needed to help the car navigate.
Connectivity is required to monitor conditions like traffic, construction and weather. Software will use the data captured to make decisions about braking, steering and navigation.
The sensors, connectivity and displays needed to guide autonomous cars add weight – about 300 to 400 pounds, according to some estimates. And the entire architecture of the interior will likely change with a demand for more entertainment features like displays and swivel seats.
Source: CAR: Technology Roadmaps
Solar cars combined with another power source may be available for sale in some countries in a few years. Hanergy Holding Group, a maker of solar panels, announced plans to build solar vehicles and showed off four prototypes which have yet to hit the market.
Realistically, in the near future, solar will probably play only a small role in powering the vehicle. Several car companies have created hybrid concept cars that use solar power to charge the battery or accessories in the car including lights and audio systems. Energy companies are also producing solutions to power electric cars with charging stations that draw their power from rooftop solar panels.
If you don’t want to wait, you always have the option to build a solar car.
In the past several years, emerging technologies and connectivity have made travel options more flexible and convenient for many people. The focus has shifted from the mode of transportation to the needs of the traveler.
Known collectively as mobility services or shared-use mobility, these forms of transportation include carshare, rideshare, bikeshare and more. The term “microtransit” refers to any solution that isn’t a private car or cab and isn’t public transit, like a bus or train. This solution can work in conjunction with public transportation to get people from their homes to the nearest train station and makes it more convenient for people who don’t want to own a car.
Bikesharing has been around for many years, but it has become more popular in recent years. The availability of technology to track and locate available bikes has made it easier for both users and the owners of the service. According to the Shared Use Mobility Center, there are more than 10,000 bikesharing services in the world with about 120 in the United States alone.
The concept of carsharing is similar to bikesharing. You can access a car and pay for it by the hour. You either return it to the initial pick-up location or drop it off at another designated location. Typically, drivers would need to reserve a car to ensure availability.
Ridesharing includes services like carpooling and vanpooling. One person drives their own vehicle, usually for a work commute, and people going to the same destination pay a monthly or weekly fee. Real-time ridesharing allows consumers to use an app to find a driver going to their destination and pay for the ride. This allows users to be more flexible with scheduling their rides and helps drivers fill up their vehicle when they have open seats.
Ride-hailing and ridesourcing has grown exponentially in recent years. Drivers use their personal vehicles to drive riders to their destination for a pre-negotiated price. App-based services provide the technology platform and are starting to move into ridesharing or “ridesplitting” services for passengers traveling a similar route.
Automakers are keeping a close eye and the rapid growth of mobility services. As fewer individuals look to buy their own cars, they are looking to part of the ridesharing economy, and many are looking at developing their own services. They also realize that this new model makes a need for longer-lasting vehicles even more acute.
Experts predict that carsharing will grow in urban areas and even expand to smaller communities as it gains more acceptance and grows in popularity. For many, it will become easier to access a car without the cost of ownership.
We may have to wait a few years for our own autonomous car, but you might not have to wait to get a ride on one. Shuttles and buses are already making use of driverless technology in many cities. Paris launched a driverless bus to shuttle passengers between train terminals. Many parks and museums use driverless vehicles to transport visitors within the confines of their grounds. Minneapolis recently tested a driverless shuttle in cold and snowy conditions.
Another exciting option? Students, including those on Wisconsin’s Badgerloop team, are working on the newest form of transportation – a hyperloop. They are designing pods that could one day transport you via vacuum tubes to another city at a high rate of speed.
Cody Schwartz is a senior majoring in engineering mechanics and astronautics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is a structural team lead on Wisconsin’s Badgerloop team.
One of his goals is to keep the pod as lightweight as possible. “The goal of the competition is to have the fastest pod,” he says. “Maintaining a lightweight design is very important to help it accelerate to high speeds.” He says it’s a primary consideration in design. This year, for the first time, they are fabricating the structure for their pod out of carbon fiber – a high-strength lightweight material.
Cody’s excited for the day when a hyperloop is fully available to travelers going between cities. “It’s a double cool factor,” he says. “It will be cool to travel large distances in a short amount of time, and it will be cool to tell my kids or grandkids that I worked on it.”
Transportation is changing rapidly, and we may not know how we’ll be traveling 20 years from now, but there will likely be more options. Regardless of the mode of transportation – whether an electric vehicle, a pod hurtling through a tube or an old-fashioned gasoline-powered car – finding solutions for new forms of efficient, lightweight transportation will continue to be top of mind for design engineers and other transportation experts.