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The car of the future, the autonomous car and the driverless car put to the test

The car of the future is always in fashion. It is tempting to imagine the progress that technology will make and its influence on our lives in the future. The world of automobiles is among the most technological and influential, so it is the ideal candidate for attempting to predict what will happen.

Taking into account the most recent progress made in automobile technology, everything seems to point in two fairly clear, related directions: the car of the future will be electric and it will be autonomous (it will drive itself).

It is impossible to know when the two things will occur, but we can analyze why this future is predictable, its implications, and also how far away we are from it in technical terms.

The car of the future will be electric

For over 100 years it has been said that the car of the future will be electric. You have to admit that this takes a great deal of credibility away from the statement; or at least it introduces a very large question mark about the time that we will have to wait: 100 years more?

Having said that, it is true that everything suggests electric cars should replace current thermal cars, for a number of reasons:

  • An electric vehicle does not pollute during its use and does not have to pollute at all if it is recharged using renewable energies.
  • An electric motor is more than twice as efficient as a thermal motor (it wastes far less energy in heat)..
  • An electric motor is much more appropriate for moving a car than a thermal motor due to its powerful response from a standing start, its complete silence when operating, and the lack of emissions we have already mentioned.
  • An electric car is much more reliable than a thermal car as the motor has no moving parts and does not generate vibrations, as well as not using fluids (it does not have oil), a clutch, gear box, exhaust system… a Scalextric car is really simple, whatever its scale.
  • Fossil fuels are an exhaustible resource. By definition, they will be exhausted and give rise to other technologies that almost inevitably mean electric motors (with batteries, a hydrogen battery or other forms of storing or generating energy).

As we can see, there are strong arguments to suppose that the car of the future will be electric; but despite everything, it has never managed to overcome the technological barriers we will outline the final section. However, they do not appear to be insurmountable in the long term.

The car of the future will be autonomous

The level of autonomy that production cars have been achieving in recent years is enormous. For some time now, we have already seen cars on sale with assisted parking, prevention of involuntary lane departure, active speed control, emergency braking, backing out of parking spaces… and many others.

Many are makes of cars (and even not of cars, such as Google) that have been working for years on driverless technology. Today we can say that, technologically speaking, it is already possible for a car to operate without a driver for thousands of kilometers in all kinds of streets and highways without having or leading to an accident.

Having said that, the technology still has to overcome some barriers to be legal and marketable – and also of course to be totally reliable. But we are close.

The implications of the autonomous car are almost infinite. We can safely say that when it comes it will change our lives:

  • If an autonomous car could collect us at our front door and leave us at our destination, there would be no need to own it. It would become a service.
  • If there were fleets of shared autonomous cars, there would be no traffic jams, no parking problems and transportation time would become useful leisure or work time.
  • There would be far fewer cars.
  • A shared autonomous car could be recharged at a service station, while we took another that was already charged to continue on our journey. We could travel long distance with electric cars.

In reality there are many more advantages; we are talking about a new world, a world of cities without noise, without traffic jams, without parking problems and without waiting to move.

Unresolved problems: how far are we?

We have just outlined a beautiful, almost perfect future for mobility, but why is it not already here? How far are we and what separates us from this ideal situation? There are two barriers that have to be overcome to achieve this imaginary car of the future:

The first is that electric cars require a great deal of energy, and electrical energy is very difficult to store, for chemical reasons. Batteries have improved substantially over the years, but they still have a tiny energy density compared with oil; and it takes a long time to recharge them compared with filling a tank.

The second barrier separating us from the autonomous car is above all the fact that driverless vehicles have to share the roads with other non-autonomous vehicles driven by unpredictable human beings, and with pedestrians, animals, badly signposted road works… In more predictable environments they would already be in operation, as is the case with trains or planes on automatic pilot, which basically cannot cross paths with anything.

Both barriers can be overcome, but it will not be as quick or simple as we would like.

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