So what will the cars tested by Autocar 90 years from now be like? One thing seems certain: despite all the talk, they won’t be fully autonomous.
There may be fully autonomous devices on the road but they won’t be cars. If you’ve ever parked in Heathrow’s business car park and got one of those funny little bubbles to take you to the terminal, you don’t think you’re stepping into a car when you climb aboard, you think you’re stepping into a driverless pod, because that is precisely what it is. Cars that don’t need drivers aren’t cars, and that’s the end of it.
But do they need wheels? The wheel is pretty old tech – about 6000 years old, in fact. So will it really be replaced within the next 90? Possibly. Wheels and tyres are space-inefficient, require heavy and complicated suspension systems, wear out and create enormous amounts of friction. They also limit the amount a car can turn. But if the car could hover, all these problems go away.
You may remember the extraordinary ekranoplans built by Russia during the Cold War. These were craft capable of carrying vast numbers of troops at 300mph, flying just above the surface of the sea, exploiting what’s known as ground effect – the aerodynamic relationship between a vehicle’s body, or wings, and the surface below. They failed partly because the Soviets were short of money and partly because the ekranoplans only worked on calm water.
On land, there would be no such problems. Super-lightweight cars would use ground effect at speed and adjustable thrusters that turned them, kept them suspended at low speeds and slowed them down. The scientists and engineers reading this may now be realising you don’t count me among your number.
Okay, so perhaps that’s too great a leap. So here’s another prediction your grandchildren can laugh at when leafing through a 90-year-old back issue of Autocar in 2108: the entire electric car revolution with which we are confronted today will have been and gone. Sometime around 2030, it starts to become clear that the transforming technology that will put the issues of range anxiety and charging times finally to bed is as far away as ever. In the meantime, supplies of the metals required to make batteries are becoming severely depleted while the true environmental cost of mining those metals and disposing of dead batteries – which are rarely mentioned by car manufacturers and almost never considered by the public – become starkly apparent.
So the industry faces reality and realises it’s been sitting on the answer to all its problems for decades. Massive advances in renewable energy sources mean it is now not only possible but also economically viable to produce hydrogen without steaming it out of natural gas, and suddenly fuel cells become flavour of the month, year, decade and century. At once cars have a clean source of fuel, decent range and refilling times only slightly slower than petrol. Hydrogen will be produced by electrolysis using power created by wind, wave and solar energy. Cars could even use solar panels to make their own hydrogen and never have to refuel at all. And their only emission would be water.
As for the way cars look, this is where I envisage the least change. The hard points of car design – the need to accommodate a given number of human beings, their luggage and some kind of propulsion system – aren’t going to change, nor will the laws of physics. Cars will become much lighter and considerably more aerodynamically efficient. Those needing to generate aerodynamic grip won’t do it by the mounting of drag-inducing wings on the car’s upper surface; they’ll do it all underneath, and not just with diffusers but by actively sucking out the air from beneath the vehicle, a technology first used in racing almost half a century ago. Drop-down skirts will seal the car to the ground when required.
Car interiors, however, will be transformed. All instrumentation will be projected via virtual head-up displays, all commands will be executed by voice or gesture. Switches, stalks, buttons and dials will cease to exist in the form we know them today. Cabins will become clean and beautiful spaces once more: because cars will be lighter and the materials that build them will be stronger, there will no longer be the need for windscreen pillars as thick as a weightlifter’s thigh.
And, of course, there will be some autonomy, probably what is known today as level four, where the driver not only hands over control to the car but can work, rest or play instead. But this will only be in strictly controlled areas such as motorways, dual carriageways, major A-roads and city centres – all the places you don’t much fancy driving anyway. But the real point is that wherever we go in the next 90 years, it will be a very short distance compared with where we’ve been in the previous 90.
Consider this: 90 years ago, a decent family car was a primitive box that would struggle to hold a 50mph cruise. It was noisy, uncomfortable, dangerous and unreliable. Today, that car is a Volkswagen Golf. Split the difference between then and now and, give or take a few months, the best family car you could buy in 1974 was also a Volkswagen Golf – a modern, reliable, safe, fuel-efficient, front-drive monocoque hatchback. The rate of evolution has slowed dramatically in the past generation, and will continue to do so in the next – and the one after that.
Fossil analysis reveals that certain species of shark stopped evolving millions of years ago, because their design could no longer be improved. The car has a way to go before it reaches that point, but it is a maturing product and the days of its greatest changes lie far behind.