As the Frankfurt Motor Show dies down and we all sleep easy at night with dreams of a Montecarlo Blue Alfa Romeo Giulia, I thought we could process some of the big ideas a lot of automakers hinted at with this year’s show.
Outside of the obvious electric future we’re all silently and ludicrously propelling ourselves towards with cars like the Audi E-Tron Quattro and Porsche Mission E Concept hitting the floor, quite a few companies slipped out that they’re asking a lot of big questions behind closed doors.
For starters, both BMW and Mercedes hinted at a future of autonomous fleets, either managed by the automakers themselves or through licensed stations, where cars would be developed and instead of sold, they would be used for taxi-style transportation. For a company that has only ever made money selling pilotable vehicles, the fact that not one but at least two of the biggest automakers on the planet are considering a shift from sales to service focus is truly a sign of big changes coming.
It’s honestly not a terrible idea. They will still gladly sell you a traditional vehicle, at least for the next few decades, and I have no doubt you could buy yourself a personal autonomous car for all your needs if so desired. The plan here is to (probably) use the existing infrastructure of dealerships and facilities to provide autonomous transportation services upon request, straight from the automaker. Instead of having to sell vehicles to a second-party service, the automaker would instead return the value of the vehicles by profiting directly from taxiing fares - and sales of their other vehicles.
Another big idea by a German brand was Volkswagen’s talk of turning cars into “smartphones.” What I think they mean by this is pushing the envelope of technology and innovation in and of the automobile to a point where it shares the same do-anything quality as that of a modern smartphone. The obvious applications being electric powertrain technology, autonomy, and who knows what else - there’s plenty of potential for revolutionary ideas in this upcoming age of automobiles.
With my recent return to college - this time at a University - I have discovered the convenience and applicability of the bicycle. European cities often have stricter emissions standards, and thus higher efficiency in their vehicles, and even more electric vehicles than towns and cities stateside simply because many of their communities do not require an automobile for everyday activity. They can get away with stricter standards than the more dispersed American communities. These ancient towns were developed at a time when people walked or rode horseback for transportation, so everything - shops, services, housing - is all relatively centralized for minimal transportation, and has simply been modernized as society has progressed.
Any destination outside of a few miles in the city and there are decades of infrastructure services like buses, subways, and train networks all available, limiting one’s need for a personal vehicle. Factor in an affordable taxi service, and it’s easy to see why the majority of people, if located within one of these centralized or compacted cities, wouldn’t need a car at all.
Universities are extremely similar to this. First of all, a parking pass for my campus is about $400 to $600 per semester. I was lucky enough to find an apartment on the edge of campus; my one-time parking pass was $20.
Since I’m essentially on campus, I simply ride my bike to and from class, and it only takes me all of five minutes to get where I am going. Most of my friends - if I had made any, which I haven’t really yet - would all likely live close by as well. My campus is pretty large, too, so naturally there are plenty of businesses including restaurants, grocery stores, and entertainment, all within about five to ten miles from my apartment. All of this is within reasonable biking distance for me, drastically reducing the use of my car.
The point is that most communities are either centralized, or have areas where most of what an individual needs are within relatively close distances.
Fast-forward another decade or so and there are now a dozen options for ride-sharing or autonomous taxiing services for me to use within three minutes, if BMW’s plans come to fruition. Even in a country where public transportation is not so commonplace, I can simply hire an autonomous car to take me on my expedition.
I see a future where we aren’t all necessarily ditching our pilotable cars for the fancy new autonomous vehicles of tomorrow, but rather having the ability to abandon automobile ownership altogether.
These ideas open the doors to smaller crowd-funded or open-source companies developing true enthusiast cars. DHL, the package-shipping company, recently looked to an open-source company to develop a new delivery truck custom to their specifications. The company was able to cut the traditional planning and development time from multiple years to merely months by outsourcing and involving multiple parties instead of a more traditional approach. That type of development opens up plenty of opportunities for all sorts of innovation going forward.
There will be a market for pilotable cars for a long time - any thought of outlawing piloted vehicles is an extremely distant nightmare. Think of the future of driving as being similar to private flying of today: relatively affordable, extremely fun, and with plenty of market and a strong community. You may have to go a bit out of your way, but the opportunity is there.
I could even see small-production open-sourced projects and autonomous cars mirroring the early coachbuilt vehicles of the 20th century, with no limit to personalization and stimulating continued car ownership as a personalized status symbol.
This year’s Frankfurt Motor Show made me realize that I am not far away from never needing to own a car again. Would I stop owning a car? Well, not if I can help it. Could I, or most of the rest of the world live without an automobile? The future of the industry is saying yes.
For more processing of future ideas, check out this great article by Alex Roy we posted a few weeks back.