Editor's note: The following is the introduction to the January 2015 issue of Scientific American Classics: The Rise of the Automobile.
The automobile has arguably shaped the modern world more than any other invention, and it has come to mean much more than a way to get from point A to point B. Two developments from the late 19th century led to the automobile of today. One was the introduction of the internal-combustion engine to power the horseless carriage—an innovation that might have remained out of reach for the middle class had not Henry Ford successfully challenged a patent held by George Selden, who tried to keep the breakthrough proprietary. The other was the technology to extract and refine petroleum, providing a plentiful supply of liquid fuels well suited for motor vehicles.
Because of these breakthroughs, the car became both a product of and a spark for economic growth. The auto industry created good jobs and provided mass mobility, and a similar dynamic is alive today in China and several other industrializing nations. In the U.S., automotive transportation expanded rapidly in the context of low-density rural regions, wide-open spaces and a wealth of natural resources. This approach to personal mobility endures even in today’s far more populous word of megacities, congestion and resource constraints. Automobile use is growing globally even as many nations invest in the advanced transit systems and high-speed rail better suited for a crowded planet.
Indeed, nearly all of the increase in car ownership will be in the developing world. The future of the automobile may therefore be shaped more by the needs and capabilities of emerging economies than by the desires of mature economies that are, for the most part, satisfied with today’s vehicles and the personal mobility they provide.
One thing that we now have and, more significant, that the consumer classes of emerging economies are growing up with, is information technology. Computers, communications networks, cameras and other electronics have become commodities and are now poised to bring disruptive change to the automobile and to transportation at large.
Perhaps the best-known herald of this transformation is Google’s research on self-driving cars. These experiments inspire a vision of autonomous robot cars that replace drivers with systems that rely on cameras, radars and other sensors, guided by detailed maps. Meanwhile automakers are incrementally offering partial automation through features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and automatic braking in certain situations. For now these features involve adding capabilities that assist rather than replace the driver, and the hope is that increasing levels of automatic control will lead to full automation over time.
Another key innovation involves connecting automobiles together and to other devices through specialized wireless networks. Known as v2x connectivity, this approach uses dedicated short-range communications for vehicle-to-vehicle (v2v) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (v2i) networking. Connected cars will also sense other mobile devices, such as a pedestrian lost on a cell-phone call or a smartphone-equipped cyclist approaching from around a corner.
My hunch, shared by many researchers and industry partners at the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, is that the future of transportation will be connected and automated. Cars will not be singular robots that independently drive themselves but rather will be networked to exploit the power of v2x systems combined with onboard sensing in ways that maximize safety.
It will take some time for this vision to be realized. Also, it is unclear whether commercially successful systems will debut in the U.S., with tendencies both libertarian and litigious, or in nations that are more centrally planned and in greater need of radical technology change. What is clear is that the race is on to develop the mobility appliances of the future and that the gains for consumers and businesses—as well as for safety and efficiency—will be vast.
Regardless of where automated transportation emerges, cars will join the “Internet of things,” and we will see an explosion of forms and functions unimaginable today. Many vehicles may still look a lot like existing cars, but novel designs very likely will fill the streets. They could range from pods for solo travelers or small parcels to larger vehicles built to move groups of people or deliver a variety of goods.
What, then, of the alternative fuels that have tried to claim the future of the car since the 1970s oil crisis? Conceived as variations of the 20th-century automobile, alternatively fueled vehicles (AFVs) offer few if any real customer benefits, while being more expensive, less capable or less convenient. Ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, electricity, natural gas and hydrogen have all been candidates for the “fuel of the future,” but none has ousted oil as the main source of transportation energy. Most AFVs will become irrelevant other than in niche markets or highly subsidized segments.
It is a common misconception that promoting AFVs is necessary for cutting carbon. The most cost-effective way to address carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change is ongoing efficiency improvement of gasoline and diesel vehicles. Engine advances (including nonplug-in hybrids) and other refinements can triple fuel economy during the next two to three decades, and that is before considering the greater gains that will come from connectivity and automation. Truly climate-friendly biofuels are unlikely to be feasible before 2050; for the foreseeable future, reforestation and other ways to sequester carbon make far more sense for balancing fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions than biofuels.
The alternative likely to play a larger role is the electric vehicle (EV). A scalable business case for battery cars, however, will not emerge until transportation is automated. Electric vehicles can then exploit the specializations and efficiencies of automated systems, which will enable self-parking and self-charging, for example. Smart transportation will also shift some consumer expectations away from the high-carrying capacity and long-range capabilities that remain out of reach for EVs.
The exact designs of future vehicles are beyond anyone’s ability to predict today. But as intelligence meets the road, then whatever form an automobile may take, it will move predictably, safely and efficiently as part of a connected and automated network of mobility.