Visions of the future automobile: past and present

Sensational and sensible ideas of future mobility from a century ago up until today

By George Kuruvilla

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Published: Thu 7 Sep 2023, 6:23 PM

One hundred years ago, the world was a different place. The West was recovering from the ramifications of WWI, while in the East, India was preparing for the exit of British colonial enterprise, and Russia and China were embracing socialism and communism. Economies started to boom, and the world was becoming a smaller place, thanks to inventions like the aeroplane and the automobile. With this freedom, physical, financial, and that of imagination, artists, writers, and people, in general, started to dream about the future of mobility. And much of it involved flight. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and examine the many sensational and sensible ideas they came up with.

Ideas from a century ago

In the early 1900s, the invention of the airplane sparked the imagination of the public. The German chocolate company Hildebrand released a few commemorative postcards in 1900 envisioning the year 2000 and many of their examples illustrated people taking to the skies in airships and gliders. They foresaw a future where entire buildings, or complete neighbourhoods, would be carted around on carriages pulled by steam trains. They also thought that people would travel on moving sidewalks and over water bodies suspended by balloons. Around the same time, Frenchman Jean Marc Cote put brush to canvas and created paintings depicting the distant turn of the century in which people moved about freely with aerial wing-flapping people and in hover cars.

According to an article published in Scientific American in 1918, the automobile of tomorrow would be like a moving drawing room with push-button operation, electric propulsion and non-puncturable tyres. The May 1923 issue of Science and Invention featured a two-wheeled flying car that was supposed to be the solution to New York City’s congested streets. The “Helicar”, as it was called, was stabilised by gyroscopes.

A few years later, the 1927 German expressionist science-fiction silent film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, illustrated supersized cities with expansive highways, which, of course, was inspired by the quick vertical growth of New York at the time.

Two decades later, as the world was emerging from the aftermath of WWII, we became aware of the stupendous potential of atomic power. People imagined everything would be powered by nuclear energy.

Ideas from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Much of the ’60s until the ’80s was all about space exploration, a given considering that the world’s political superpowers i.e., the US and Russia, were fighting for space dominance and because 1969 was the year of the Moon Landing. Its influence was well-depicted in The Jetsons, animated sitcom by Hanna Barbara, where buildings sit high on towering pedestals high above the earth, and people taxied between them using flying vehicles propelled by smokeless engines that could shape-shift into briefcases. And in the ’80s, with the birth of personal computers and the Internet, movies like Back to the Future showed what 2015 looked like. It featured hover boards and automatic dog walkers.

Vehicles of the 22nd century

Those who’ve watched the movies Blade Runner 2049 and Tron may have some ideas of what today’s writers and designers think of future mobility. However, predicting the appearance and features of new-age automobiles is challenging due to the rate of technological advancement and the influence of environmental concerns, government regulations and consumer preferences. However, here are some educated guesses about how automobiles may look and drive like in the future, and the kind of technology that’ll be integrated into them.

Propulsion options

As electric propulsion gains favour among automakers and the public, thanks to Tesla and Elon Musk leading the way, there is little doubt that EVs will dominate the next couple of decades. Jaguar has committed to having their range completely electrified by 2025 and many other manufacturers have made similar pledges. With it will come the improvement in range, charging durations, and even solutions for battery disposal and recyclability. Electric motors may even become more compact units, integrated into the wheel, offering greater space and design flexibility.

Solar and hydrogen fuel cell technology may also be used either as a primary or auxiliary system. Vehicles like the solar-powered Lightyear 0 (currently priced at USD 250,000) are expensive, but mass-market commercialisation will lead to a price war; eventually, reduced prices will make them accessible to the common people.

Autonomous vehicles, connectivity and personalisation

Running parallel to the EV revolution is the R&D of Autonomous Vehicles and Connected Driving. AVs will have advanced sensors and cameras, backed by big processing power, which will allow people to go from parking lot to parking lot with minimal input. Business folk will be able to write emails and even attend meetings while families will get to interact with each other or watch movies, read books, etc. while being on the move. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication will also enhance traffic management and safety, while connectivity will allow for seamless integration of multiple devices, like your phones, smartwatches and tablets, and even gaming devices to the Internet keeping people in the know as they move out of their living rooms onto the roads.

As high-speed travel becomes more crucial in saving time, we will see the development of systems like Elon’s Hyperloop system. We will also see enhancements in the aerodynamics and lightweight design. The 1908 Ford Model T has a coefficient of drag of 0.79, the 1938 VW Beetle has 0.48, the Toyota Corolla from the 1990s was measured at 0.34 and today’s Tesla Model 3 has a remarkable rating of 0.23 Cd. Soon, vehicles may become practically invisible to the air, reducing fuel economy and improving cabin noise. Lightweight materials, such as carbon fibre, aluminium and advanced composites, will also be used to improve efficiency.

Personalised mobility will gain importance as we go ahead. And the increasing sales of e-scooters and electric-assisted bicycles is proof. Also, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) platforms will become more prevalent. Today, companies like OneClickDrive and Udrive allow instant micro-term rental of vehicles and subscription services, allowing us to change vehicles as and when we want, and we expect to see an upswing in this trend too. Vehicles may also be designed to cater to individual preferences, with adaptable interiors and entertainment systems. Right now, with the use of driver profiles in luxury vehicles, we can set mirror settings, radio stations, etc., to our liking, but this will extend to more features. The Audi Skysphere Concept takes it a step beyond, showcasing the shape-shifting capability, with the ability to switch from a sporty coupe to a self-driving grand tourer by adding an extra 10 inches to its length. The increased wheelbase will offer better ride comfort and in self-drive mode, the fold-away of the steering column and pedals will render a cleaner, less distracting interior.

Another parallel is the incorporation of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) interfaces that will enhance the driving experience by providing real-time information, entertainment and navigation assistance. Windshield displays may replace traditional dashboards, offering customisable graphical and information overlays. Soon you may see cafes along with their ratings and menus highlighted on the windshield as you go along the road.

Speaking of individuality and customisation, we may see a whole lot of movement in that respect. The BMW GINA Light Visionary Model, for example, can change its shape, thanks to its flexible skin made from expansion-resistant fabric instead of typical rigid metallic/fibre body panels. The newer BMW i Vision Dee Concept is equally intriguing, providing colour-changing properties at will using 240 E Ink segments that will offer 32 colours and combinations to switch between. Its high-intuitive AI-powered virtual assistant will also talk to you in a natural voice (and by that, they mean a very American accent) about concerns and recommendations.

Sustainability & safety

As our collective consciousness rises, we will see deliberate design and use of sustainable materials and manufacturing. We are already seeing the use of cacti and pineapple-derived products as replacements for genuine leather and the use of wood, bamboo, and plant-derived cellulose nanofibres for body panels, etc. But this is just the beginning. We may also see the extensive use of 3D printing to create intricate and lightweight vehicle components. This will allow authorised dealers and workshops to produce and replace components, thus reducing shipment times and alleviating logistical issues.

Flying Vehicles

Although flying cars remain a speculative concept, they may become a reality in the future, addressing traffic congestion in urban areas. The first flying taxis in Dubai will soon connect Downtown Dubai, Dubai Marina, Dubai International Airport, and Palm Jumeirah. Soon we may see such private vehicles in every garage or hangar shall we say.

Some of these ideas that have been dreamt up in the past have made it to the present day like driverless cars and shopping at the press of a button. Similarly, while significant things mentioned above may influence the future of the automotive, we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

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