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Just in the last ten years, human ingenuity has propelled the auto industry into a new technological era. This is evident by the introduction of smart vehicles, GPS tracking, electrified engines, and other technological wonders. Its mantra is to protect our delicate planetary ecosystem and to enrich our vehicle riding experience. It is truly a great time to witness this evolution.
The fascination to use technology by car manufacturers started back in 1968 when Volkswagen introduced the first vehicle with a computer control module. It was called the D-Jetronic, and it was the first computer controlled electronic fuel injection (EFI) system installed on a vehicle. What followed years later was the need to install computers (or ECUs) to reduce vehicle emissions. Today, manufacturers use technology to not only reduce emissions, but to find solutions that increases fuel efficiency and upgrades our car riding experience.
Even tool technology has had to evolve in order to keep up with the advancements of today’s computerized vehicles. These days tools like scan tools and online repair resources are essential to properly diagnose and repair the cars and trucks we drive today. It will be interesting to see what tools will need to be developed to diagnose and repair the vehicles of tomorrow.
The initiative to reduce CO2 emissions by governments, environmentalists, and consumers has definitely affected how automotive engineers approach fuel efficiency. Although U.S. legislation set the precedence to improve fuel efficiency with the 1975 CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, it wasn’t until the late 90’s and early 2000’s when hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) became as the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. These popular vehicles–the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, and the Chevy Volt–offered incredible fuel economy by integrating a gasoline engine with an electric motor–technology that was actually invented back in 1899 by engineer Ferdinand Porsche. Then Tesla changed the automotive landscape in 2012 by introducing an all-electric vehicle (EV), the Model S. This “fuel-free” EV promised uncompromised performance, great mileage, and zero emissions. For the last 10 years, Tesla has delivered on its promise by selling over 2 million EVs.
Because of Tesla’s success, every major manufacturer–Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors, Volvo, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, and others–is investing heavily to quickly develop its own EV. Even smaller companies like Rivian and Lucid Air have come to challenge their larger counterparts with their stylistic EV. And the latest is that there is an initiative called the Net Zero Emissions Standard, which is a consortium of countries, including the U.S., who are on a path to stop using fossil fuels by the year 2050 – standards that will have a huge impact on the auto industry. Some manufacturers like Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz have already pledged to cease the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
Although EVs offer the advantage of zero emissions, their batteries create a huge burden on the vehicle’s weight and range. Vehicle manufacturers, like Volvo and Toyota, are starting to explore the idea of using energy-storing body panels instead of the traditional metal panels. The redesigned panels use nanomaterials (like carbon fibers) with supercapacitors, which are extremely light and efficient at storing energy. The technology has already proven to reduce the overall weight by 15% and increase its efficiency range by 80 miles or more. It is a concept that looks very promising for the future EVs.
The assimilation of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in vehicles is another technological crusade that’s transforming the auto industry. The aim is to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the risk of human error while on the road.
Semi-autonomous vehicles, which encompass AI and augmented reality (AR) technologies, is the first step manufacturers have taken to keep drivers safe. Cars today have features like integrated front and rear cameras to sense threats; collision avoidance systems that gives drivers a visual and audio warning when getting close to a car–and even automatically stops the vehicle to avoid a crash; lane guidance systems to help driver with lane navigation; speed limit sensors that alert driver of area speed limits while driving; self-parking systems that parks the vehicle without driver assistance; and smart rear view mirrors to help drivers have a clearer rear view when reversing. But this is just the beginning.
Decades ago, the idea of a driverless car was only talked about in science fiction. But in 2022, there’s a huge buzz and excitement in the auto industry by the massive steps it’s taken (and $ billions invested) to create a fully autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. Companies like Tesla are already testing, and even selling, a self-driving product called Autopilot. General Motors and Honda have a “robotaxi” concept called Cruise that is currently operating in San Francisco, while Toyota is teaming up with Uber to create a self-driving rideshare solution. Then there is Ford and Volkswagen who have teamed up to create Argo AI, which both promise to feature in their vehicles within the next couple of years. Even Alphabet (Google), a company not typically associated with the auto industry, has created a fleet of ridesharing vehicles called Waymo that you can hail with a mobile app. And Amazon is working towards creating a fleet of self-driving delivery trucks. Wow!
Other AR technologies are also being explored to increase vehicle safety. For example, having a dashboard that projects messages on the windshield to alert driver with directions, how slippery the road is, and other road safety conditions. Automotive engineers are also using AR to test safety features before implementing it in real-life applications. Even AR is being used to aid technicians navigate through complex automotive systems to correctly perform repairs.
In the modern technological world, a lot of digital type services have come about to assist companies with their daily operations. The most common is SaaS (Software-as-a-Service), which offers a specialized digital software services for companies to use (think Microsoft 360). The next type is DaaS (Data-as-a-Service), which offers data storing services for companies (think Amazon Web Services). Now comes CaaS (Car-as-a-Service), which plans to revolutionize the ridesharing services industry using autonomous vehicles.
The idea behind CaaS is to offer consumers, who reside in urban communities, an optional ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft they can hail from a mobile app. The big difference is that these are self-driving vehicles (no driver). In 2022, Alphabet’s Waymo One autonomous CaaS is already transporting customers in the Phoenix area and recently expanded into San Francisco – a dense urban city with complex and challenging roads.
Imagine a world where road accidents would be a very rare occurrence and freeway gridlock would disappear. This is what the future holds with inter-vehicle communication. With this technology, cars would be able to “talk” to each other to relay information about its speed, location, direction of travel, braking, loss of stability, and other parameters. The concept is also known as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications.
V2V provides the ability to quickly assess everything surrounding the vehicle and prevent any mishaps – at a much faster response time than a typical human driver. At the same time, vehicles would communicate with other “smart objects” like traffic signals and other stationary markers to help the vehicle navigate. The part that looks very promising is combining this technology with self-driving vehicles to make them safer and efficient. There is a lot still to do to make this happen, but we are getting very close.
As consumers who are digitally connected to our phones, it is just a matter of time that the technology will reach our vehicles. In fact, in some ways we’ve already started by being able to connect our phones to our cars using Apple CarPlay or Google Android. The next step is to bypass our phones and have the ability to directly access Wi-Fi to download apps, reply to emails on your behalf, and perform other tasks that distracts you from driving. In essence, it would keep you connected, check on your health, provide entertainment and offer all the comforts you desire. It could even perform self-diagnostic routines and send the information to be repaired remotely by a technician without you even having to do anything. Incredible stuff!
Amazing technological wonders are surely coming, but until we have our own K.I.T.T. car to protect us and take us on adventures...let’s all be safe out there!