The automobile industry is experiencing a seismic shift right now. Led by a rapidly growing population, concerns about the environment and an increasing need to connect every aspect of our lives, technology is radically reshaping how we get from A to B.
While we all love the sounds and smells of fossil-burning engines – you can't beat a naturally aspirated V8 – it's not sustainable for humans to keep using them for our everyday vehicles. So consumers are bracing themselves for a new dawn of transportation; but with global manufacturers experimenting with different solutions, no one is quite sure of what the future holds.
The smart money is on all-electric vehicles being the dominant force. When you look at what Tesla is achieving as a relatively small car maker – the Model S is phenomenally impressive – you can only imagine what will be in store when all the big brands get on board. However, while the Model S manages up to 265 miles on a single charge, some of the lower-end electric vehicles currently fall short of a hundred miles, and that'll need to be improved before EVs truly win the public over.
Honda and Toyota are among the manufacturers that are thinking outside the box. While both brands produce EVs, both have also been working on a solution involving hydrogen power – though for the time being at least, we're nowhere near an infrastructure that could sustain that.
Whichever way it goes, it's fair to say that we're still some way off universally replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with ones that run on sustainable energy. There's always a certain degree of apprehension when it comes to revolutionary tech, and in the case of electric vehicles, the aforementioned range limitations, coupled with the fact that charging stations are not as ubiquitous as they need to be, means that public hearts and minds still need to be won over.
As an interim compromise, the next ten years or so could see a boom in hybrid combustion-electric vehicles. Renault's EOLAB is perhaps the best example of what we might have on our driveways over the next decade. Despite it being a multi-million-pound concept testbed, Renault hasn't kept the car a closely guarded secret, but has had it out there for industry experts to test drive. And so far, opinions have been positive: while it offers huge efficiency gains (it'll do around 60 miles on a litre of fuel), it shows no compromise in terms of drivability, and has been compared
to a latter-day supermini.
For the EOLAB, Renault focused on the combined challenge of shedding weight, improving aerodynamic efficiency, utilising hybrid power and keeping costs down sufficiently to place the EOLAB – or, rather, production descendants of it – in the 'affordable cars' bracket. The prototype is based around the 74bhp, 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine you'll currently find inside the Renault Twingo, only here it's mated to a 64bhp electric motor. The EOLAB's body is 255kg lighter and 30 per cent more slippery through the air than a Clio, thanks to active aerodynamics. Other features include a massive HMI display inside, and iPhone-sized screens for wing mirrors.
The word on the street is that the prototype's technology, and up to 90 per cent of its components, will appear in future Renault cars, transforming Clios, Meganes et al into entirely different beasts. So you can see what sort of tech will be considered 'normal' in years to come – exciting, isn't it?
But the holy grail among automobile manufacturers is the self-driving car. All the big boys – including Audi, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz – are keen to show how far they've come with the tech, waving wildly while pointing at their efforts. However, the battle is being won by a much more softly spoken player. Volvo claims that its XC90 SUV is ready to roll right now. The Swedish manufacturer plans to put a hundred of them on the road in 2017. A hundred. On public roads. The year after next.
Bask in the glow of that for a minute…
Using 28 cameras, sensors, lasers and radar units, the XC90 will be able to do everything that you or I can do in a car, short of talking crap and drinking a Starbucks. Volvo claims that the system is reliable enough “to take over every aspect of driving in autonomous mode”, which basically means it'll be able to accelerate, brake, steer, read road signs and navigate its way through moving traffic.
No matter how technologically advanced cars of the future may be, there will always be people who require a healthier or more individual mode of transport. Cyclists are being catered for more and more in cities around the world. In Copenhagen, the construction of an elevated roadway just for two-wheelers – the Cykelslangen – has seen the number of commuters who pedal to work rise to more than 50 per cent. Paris is aiming to build 700km of new cycle paths by 2020, and London is hot on their heels.
If you don't fancy pedalling (and you're not sold on electric bicycles), you might be interested in Toyota's i-Road: a one-person three-wheeler that goes around corners like a speed-skater, with the two front wheels moving up and down independently. To further develop the concept, Toyota recently launched the Open Road Project in Tokyo. Ten i-Roads have been made available to a group of 100 participants – from everyday members of the public to experts and 'trendsetters' – who will then be asked for their feedback on usability and styling. They will even be given the chance to personalise different aspects of the vehicle via 3D printing – which, of course, opens up a world of possibilities in terms of bespoke styling.
Another concept showcased by Toyota recently was the space-age FV2. Billed as a “personal transportation pod”, it sees the driver shifting around the cabin to control the car, and important information being projected onto the windscreen using facial- recognition commands. A frown caused by awful radio broadcasts might induce you to brake suddenly, so be careful what you listen to… Stylistically, the FV2 is quite reminiscent of the Sinclair C5. So Sir Clive was obviously ahead of the curve with his battery- powered fascination…
Mobility of the future is going to be less about owning your own car and more about how you can get to where you want to go in smart ways. At CES this year, Ford's CEO Mark Fields announced that the marque was kicking off 25 global experiments to look specifically into smart mobility, and what our needs and trends will be in the years to come.
In London, for example, Ford is looking at introducing minute-by-minute car hire, where you'll book a hybrid or electric vehicle, pick it up at a collection spot and then drive it to your destination across town. All of this will be conducted via an app on your phone, and you'll only get charged for the time you're in the car.
Another experiment is taking place at a golf course near Ford's HQ in Dearborn, Michigan. Golf carts are being collected from out on the course and remotely driven back to their base by an operator located in a bunker, using screens and controls – a bit like a drone pilot, only less threatening.
If a company like Ford is locked into finding smart transport solutions, you can rest assured that big money is being pumped into implementing such initiatives on a grand scale. All of which makes the future of mobility rather mouthwatering – and if we can save money, and the environment,
in the process, even better.
If you think all of that's amazing, just think what could be in store for the automobile industry a further eight years down the line. Maybe the Doc had it spot on when he said, at the end of Back To The Future, “Where we're going, we don't need roads.”