What's coming down the pipeline? Industry experts on what will be the norm in 10 years.It's never easy, trying to predict the future. Even more so when you're talking about the auto industry. So what will our cars look like in ten years? They may not look too terribly different, or so says Sean McAlinden, executive vice president of research and chief economist, Center for Automotive Research (CAR).
"The average car on the road in 2009 was 10.6 years old," McAlinden said. "In 1999 it was 9.1 years old, and in 1995 it was 8.5 years old. So if we keep that average going, [most of the cars we see] in ten years will be the ones that are coming out today."
McAlinden bases this off of the fact that in ten years, new cars will only be five-six percent of what is sold in a year. That figure is the same today. In terms of prices, consumers can expect the average price to rise to $35,000-$36,000 from today's average of $29,900.
We can probably expect to see some new developments in communication and entertainment, McAlinden noted, but "then we'll have to hear from the government on whether we can keep it in there."
One example of government intervention on automotive features is the recent proposal requiring automakers to install back-up cameras in all new vehicles starting in late 2014. The feature helps eliminate blind spots and reduce back-over accidents.
In addition to the rearview cameras, Washington has many more ideas on safety features they'd like to see in the car, including brake override systems, forward crash warning, side-to-side blind spot detection, active lane departure warning systems, curve speed warning, and more airbags than ever - and not just regular airbags, but smart airbags that are able to adapt to passengers. The government is also interested in interconnectivity devices that alert authorities when there's been an accident.
McAlinden speculated that our future cars will not be made mostly of steel, as they are today, but many materials, including magnesium, aluminum, plastic composites and other plastics, mainly to reduce the weight.
"Although it is light weight, high-strength steel is much more expensive and slightly harder to work with," McAlinden said. "We might see auto manufacturers using large plastic pieces in the powertrain, replacing aluminum to get the vehicle's weight down."
For every 10 percent in weight reduction, fuel consumption is reduced by seven percent.
"However," McAlinden cautioned, "the more you try to reduce the weight of a car, the more expensive it becomes, and [the lower weight] reduces safety."
Connectivity and other glitzy new features
Mood lighting. Different seating. Customizable, updated interiors. These are some of the changes consumers are looking for, and suppliers are currently working on them.
"We have a huge aftermarket sector working on making the car more appealing," McAlinden said.
Connectivity is another feature consumers will be hearing a lot more about--connecting the vehicle to the road through sensors, and connecting the vehicle to other vehicles nearby.
"We might get to a point where these features can actually control the car itself," McAlinden speculated, "so you don't even have to drive. Our worry here at CAR really is about the cost, and whether the consumer wants to pay for features like that.
"By 2016, vehicles will average 35.5 mpg. That will cost money. Every car sold ten years from now will have auxiliary battery on board to make it a hybrid and improve technology."
Richard Wallace, director, Transportation Systems Analysis Group, CAR, sees the car of the future becoming more of a platform on which to run technology through the driver's phone.
"You'll see the vehicle become connected to the cloud, like everything else is," Wallace said. "Your phone is now a computing device connected to the Internet, or 'the cloud.' It opens up myriad opportunities to stream a video from your handheld to the car or check scores of the game."
Wallace noted that we will begin to see more enforcement on the usage of such technology. "Driver distraction will be taken more seriously," he said.
"I tend to think you're going to see more streamlining," Wallace said. "Why would anyone ever go out and buy a GPS ever again? It's already on your phone. The phone is providing the cloud access."
Wallace noted the phenomenon of the app. "This 'app' paradigm for mobile devices is a limited, but well-done functionality. I can see future cars bringing the ability to reproduce that "app button" into a vehicle consul. It's an obvious move--it works so well and people have picked it up on their phones almost overnight. You'll see more and more collaboration between the vehicle companies and the I.T. companies."
One service consumers might not see going away is OnStar. The redundant device will still be a need, Wallace said. "It's nice to have something that makes a call for you, if you've been in an accident and are unable to make the call yourself."
An electric future?
McAlinden noted that CAR is skeptical as to whether electric vehicles will become the norm. Massive infrastructure updates are needed; otherwise, two to three cars on one block may be enough to blow the grid.
The other problem lies in needing transportation, but having to wait for a dead battery.
"Where it might work," McAlinden said, "is urban environments, if they have someplace to charge."
McAlinden was also hopeful about GM's idea of extended range (as seen in the Chevy Volt) or Toyota's work to develop a better hybrid.
"Hopefully we'll be able to keep our pick ups," McAlinden said, "because certain people have uses for them."
A scary thought: history repeats itself
"Also keep in mind that in 10 years, we'll be ready for another recession," McAlinden said. "In the past decade, one of our largest mistakes was assuming there wouldn't be one. You have to plan for these things. Recessions generally happen once every ten years, and the recovery period offers the opportunity to make money again."
Jennifer Baum is editor of the Detroiter.
Eighty-seven percent of Americans still take their own car to work. Twenty years ago, it was also 87 percent. What has changed is how new the average car is. Compared to 1999, it's four to five years older. People really know how to hang on to their cars, and that's part of our problem today.