Many streams of accelerating technological change, from energy to The Impact of Computing, will find themselves intersecting in one of the largest consumer product industries of all. Over 70 million automobiles were produced worldwide in 2006, with rapid market penetration underway in India and China. Indisputably, cars greatly affect the lives of consumers, the economies of nations, and the market forces of technological change.
I thus present a speculative timeline of technological and economic events that will happen for automobiles. This has numerous points of intersection with the Future Timeline for Energy.
2007 : The Tesla Roadster emerges to not only bring Silicon Valley change agents together to sow the seeds of disruption in the automotive industry, but also to immediately transform the image of electrical vehicles from 'punishment cars' to status symbols of dramatic sex appeal. Even at the price of $92,000, demand outstrips supply by an impressive margin.
2009 : The Automotive X-Prize of $25 Million (or more) is successfully claimed by a car designed to meet the 100 mpg/mass-producable goal set by the X Prize Foundation. Numerous companies spring forth out of prototypes tested in the contest.
2010 : With gasoline at $4/gallon, established automobile companies simultaneously release plug-in hybrid vehicles. Hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electrical cars represent 5% of total new automobiles sold in the US, even if tax incentives have been a large stimulus. The habit of plugging in a car overnight to charge it starts to become routine for homeowners with such cars, but apartment dwellers are at a disadvantage in this regard, not having an outlet near their parking spot.
2011 : Two or more iPod ports, 10-inch flat-screen displays for back seat passengers, parking space detection technology, and embedded Wi-Fi adapters that wirelessly can transfer files into the vehicle's hard drive from up to 500 feet away are standard features for many new cars in the $40,000+ price tier.
2012 : Over 100 million new automobiles are produced in 2012, up from 70 million in 2006. All major auto manufacturers are racing to incorporate new nanomaterials that are lighter than aluminium yet stronger and more malleable than steel. The average weight of cars has dropped by about 5% from what it was for the equivalent style in 2007.
2013 : Tesla Motors releases a fully electric 4-door sedan that is available for under $40,000, which is only 33% more than the $30,000 that the typical fully-loaded gasoline-only V6 Accord or Camry sells for in 2013.
2014 : Self-driving cars are now available in the luxury tier (priced $100,000 or higher). A user simply enters in the destination, and the car charts out a path (similar to Google Maps) and proceeds on it, in compliance with traffic laws. However, a software malfunction results in a major traffic pile-up that garners national media attention for a week. Subsequently, self-driving technologies are shunned despite their superior statistical performance relative to human drivers.
2015 : As predicted in early 2006 on The Futurist, a 4-door sedan with a 240 hp engine, yet costing only 5 cents/mile to operate (the equivalent of 60 mpg of gasoline), is widely available for $35,000 (which is within the middle-class price band by 2015 under moderate assumptions for economic growth). This is the result of combined advances in energy, lighter nanomaterials, and computerized systems.
2016 : An odd change has occurred in the economics of car depreciation. Between 1980 and 2007, annual car depreciation rates decreased due to higher quality materials and better engine design, reaching as little as 12-16% a year for the first 5 years of ownership. Technology pushed back the forces of depreciation.
However, by 2016, 40% of a car's initial purchase price is comprised of electronics (up from under 20% in 2007 and just 5% in 1985), which depreciate at a rate of 25-40% a year. The entire value of the car is pulled along by the 40% of it that undergoes rapid price declines, and thus total car depreciation is now occuring at a faster rate of up to 20% a year for the first 5 years. This is a natural progression of The Impact of Computing, and wealthier consumers are increasingly buying new cars as 'upgrades' to replace models with obsolete technologies after 5-7 years, much as they would upgrade a game console, rather than waiting until mechanical failure occurs in their current car. Consumers also conduct their own upgrades of certain easily-replaced components, much as they would upgrade the memory or hard drive of a PC. Technology has thus accelerated the forces of depreciation.
2018 : Among new cars sold, gasoline-only vehicles are now a minority. Millions of electricity-only vehicles are charged through solar panels on a daily basis, relieving those consumers of a fuel expenditure that was as high as $2000/year in 2007. Even when sunlight is obscured and the grid is used, some electrical vehicles cost as little as 1 cent/mile to operate.
2020 : New safety technologies that began to appear in mainstream cars around 2012, such as night vision, lane departure correction, and collision-avoiding cruise control, have replaced the existing fleet of older cars over the decade, and now US annual traffic fatalities have dropped to 25,000 in 2020 from 43,000 in 2005. Given the larger US population in 2020 (about 350 Million), this is a reduction in traffic deaths by half on a per-capita basis.
2024 : Self-driving cars have overcome the stigma of a decade prior, and are now widely used. But they still have not fully displaced manual driving, due to user preferences in this regard. Certain highways permit only self-driven cars, with common speed limits of 100 mph or more.
2025-30 : Electricity (indeed, clean electricity) now fuels nearly all passenger car miles driven in the US. There is no longer any significant fuel consumption cost associated with driving a car, although battery maintenance is a new aspect of car ownership. Many car bodies now include solar energy absorbant materials that charge a parked car during periods of sunlight. Leaving such cars out in the sun has supplanted the practice of parking in the shade or in covered parking.
Pervasive use of advanced nanomaterials has ensured that the average car weighs only 60% as much as a 2007 counterpart, but yet is over twice as resistant to dents.
I believe that this timeline represents the the combination of median forecasts across all technological and economic trends that influence cars, and will be perceived as too optimistic or too pessimistic by an equal number of readers. Let's see how closely reality matches this timeline.