The future of driving: Look, no hands!

Within a decade you may use a vehicle-sharing app on your phone to call up a nearby car that will activate and drive itself to your door.

Damien Reid September 18, 2016

Is the car industry morphing into another version of Apple or Google or are those smart technology titans planning a silent coup to take over the car making business altogether?

In a decade, will we even be driving cars the way we do now and how do you even categorise a company like Tesla?

Smart technology is rapidly blurring the lines of the automotive domain to such an extent that even the world’s most established car makers, Ford and Volkswagen aren’t sure where they stand these days.

Google has built a self-driving car and other tech companies are working on the same, while the established players are even looking at a future where no one owns a car. Car-pooling for the masses is very much on the cards. 

Last year, Ford Motor Company CEO, Mark Field said that by attracting new, non-traditional partners, it was linking Ford as an ‘automotive and mobility company’. One new product they are working on is an electric bicycle that will replace cars in built-up areas.

With increased urbanisation comes more restrictions on car usage, so Ford has set about developing an electric bicycle that’s designed to carry you the last mile to your meeting, allowing you to park outside the CBD and cycle in.

Aware that there’s a good chance its riders will be wearing suits and not want to arrive sweaty or smelly, it uses the GPS coordinates from your phone to gradually increase the amount of electric assistance the closer you get to your destination so that for the home stretch, you’re literally coasting into your appointment under full electric power.

The GPS tells you to turn left or right by lighting up the respective handle bar and the bike folds and slides into its own charging dock in the boot of your car. Audi has a similar scooter in development for its Connected Mobility concept.

VW went even further than Ford’s claim recently by suggesting that it won’t bring back its “Das Auto” tagline which it shelved in the wake of the emissions scandal. Marketing chief Jurgen Stackmann said the company must mutate from being a ‘car’ company into a ‘services, connectivity and software’ company. 

In short, we are on the edge of experiencing the biggest change to how we commute and view personal transportation since Gottlieb Daimler’s original patent for the motor car was submitted on January 29,1886. 

After spending time talking to senior execs on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve come to the conclusion that within the next 10 years, everything you know about personal transportation will change dramatically. 

Within a decade we may not own cars but instead use a vehicle-sharing app on our phone to call up a nearby car which will activate itself and drive autonomously to your door, wait for you to either take the controls so you can drive yourself, or sit back and it will drive for you.

According to Audi Chairman, Rupert Stadler, it’s a reality that’s much closer than you think. Stadler told EDGAR that by 2050, two-thirds of all people will be living in large cities which will be high-rise and will require a different focus on urban mobility. 

“We are investing more than €3 billion for the mobility of tomorrow this year alone and will push forward with the electrification and digitisation of our products,” he said in what he described as the biggest investment phase in the brand’s history.

“Electrification and digitisation represent a historic shift in the evolution of the automobile and we plan to play a large part in shaping this change.”

Audi will launch its new A8 flagship next year which will be its first volume car capable of piloted driving. It will drive itself temporarily on the autobahn at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour and by doing so will cross the threshold from partial to highly automated driving. “By 2025 we will see fully automated driving,” Mr Stadler added.

Audi’s Member of the Board of Management for Finance and Organisation, Axel Strotbek told EDGAR that plans for a city of the future which will read data from cars to smooth traffic flow and reduce congestion are already underway.

“We are currently in a phase of enormous advance expenditure for the mobility of tomorrow,” he said. “Cities in the US are trialing smart traffic lights which ease congestion by monitoring the speed of cars so that they can be channeled into a smarter pattern to avoid stop-start situations which will provide a lot of environmental improvements.

“Together with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, we collectively invested in HERE, which we bought from Nokia, that allows us to collect millions of pieces of data that will be transmitted via a car’s SIM to a server. This server will immediately bring that information back to the cars in front and behind to balance out flow and give information to the driver about road conditions, weather, lane closures or accidents ahead.”

We recently tried this for ourselves during the launch of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class in Portugal. Our test car included HERE and pointed out a closed lane ahead as well as a broken down car over a crest. Using the adaptive cruise control, I flicked the indicator stalk which instructed the car to change lanes by itself after it had slowed itself down to pass the obstruction.

While that was a Mercedes and we were talking to Audi chiefs, it’s the same technology that they, along with BMW have jointly purchased. Additionally, Audi is also preparing for the production of its first fully electric car in 2018 which will be an SUV offering a range of more than 500 kilometres. 

“Starting from 2018, we will launch an electrified car every year,” Mr Stadler added.

Over at Ford’s R&D hub in Silicon Valley, California we met CEO, Mark Field who said that they’re well advanced in the first step to fully autonomous driving.

“The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established levels of automation ranging from 0 to 5. The industry is at the beginning with most of the technology at level 1 with things like Active Park Assist, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Monitoring and Active Cruise Control,” he said. “These are the building blocks for semi-autonomous driving but it’s still a big step from these driver assist technologies to full, 100 per cent autonomy.

“We believe automated driving will be possible in a controlled environment with the right combination of conditions in the foreseeable future and Ford is moving this from a ‘research effort’ to an ‘advanced engineering project’.”

This means it’s now entering the second of three phases of bringing the technology to production. Ford has also recently appointed a Director of Autonomous Vehicle Development.

At the top end of level 1 is the ability to park and pull out of a car space while standing outside the car using the smartphone app. We tried this for ourselves on the new Mercedes E-Class, piloting a driverless car into its parking bay and reversing it out by a finger movement on the phone screen.

The obvious progression from here is for the car to park itself or circulate around the neighbourhood while you’re in a meeting and then return, on your command.

Ford is investing in wearable products so that you will be able to do this via your watch as well as check the car’s fuel range or battery charge.

“The results from a recent JD Power tech Choice study showed that people are feeling more comfortable with the notion of semi-autonomous cars where the vehicle is taking over some of the features like braking and steering

The future of driving, it seems, is coming up hard on the outside lane and – one day – will be ready to overtake us.