The thing that keeps me coming back to cars is how they creep into most every aspect of our lives. The obvious reason is that we spend a good portion of our time inside of them. An overwhelming 91 percent of Americans use their personal vehicles to get to work, the average American spends 55 minutes behind the wheel a day, and Americans make 1.1 billion trips everyday, according to the US Department of Transportation.
Car companies have been right in our face for a long time, but now tech companies are getting involved. The biggest shift in the perception of the automobile in America, is that in 2016 cars became part of the tech industry’s mission.
Only a year ago, if you read the comments on our car reviews, it seemed like Verge readers were divided in two camps — those who thirsted for car coverage and those who thought car companies— excluding a rare bird like Tesla — had no place among our focus on gadgetry, big ideas about security and data, and the promise of progress. It felt like the auto industry had crashed CES as the uncouth guest flashing around marketing dollars. But 2016 was the year of surprising realignments, in virtually every aspect of society, and suddenly it became hard to find a tech company purveyor that didn’t express an interest in some aspect of autonomous car technology or wasn’t in talks with a major automaker. Car culture, which up until recently was infused with 20th century nostalgia, has piqued the imagination as transportation concepts are called into question. Artificial intelligence, LIDAR, and data security are now part of everyday car speak.
As we head into 2017 and CES abuzz with car news, we can make predictions about what’s ahead, but in reality none of us has a clear idea of what comes next. And that’s where I struggle to make forecasts. In my wildest vision, I imagine an autonomous trucking service will quietly set up shop in a remote western state to make weekly deliveries, a car company will launch a subscriber service as experiment, or a US city that will announce plans for a self-driving only zone. I imagine rideables that have wicked new designs, Uber flying to a pickup destination near you, or a new electric car company going belly up. I imagine a coalition of government and industry players that push some more practical version of hyperloop plans forward. I imagine a company, in a gutsy move, taking the steering wheel out of its car to brag about reaching level 5 autonomy in public testing, in the same way car company engineers used to street race in the 1960s, after dark when no one was watching.
But in 2017, I could also see progress hampered. A major car company could spiral into bankruptcy if its business model for manufacturing or overseas sales is challenged by political forces. I could see engineering and technician shortages increase, as not enough Americans pursue training in their fields and the diversity in the auto industry’s highest ranks continue to be abysmal. If the government dials back on emissions standards, car companies may abandon plans to make efficient cars. I could see a patchwork of self-driving laws causing heated legislative battles when the next fatal accident happens.
These are uncertain times in the world, and in a time of such flux, the automotive industry is subject to the unpredictability that looms large. Technology we have learned, can catch us by surprise, create logical solutions, but in 2016 we were reminded that it can also let us down. And so can humans.
A decade ago, we were told that electric cars were the future. Yet even in an ev-friendly state like California, for every electric car consumer, there are 97 drivers who will still buy gasoline powered engines, especially when gas prices go low. Thousands of car companies and big ideas have come and gone. The history of automotive industry is made up of more failure than progress.The jury is still out on who will win in this era. Will Tesla go the route of Tucker or Ford? Will the Chevy Bolt and Model 3 ever capture more business than the Ford F150?
While none of us know what’s ahead, here’s what I hope will happen in the world of transportation. I hope that new ideas and innovations will delight us, surprise us, and keep us safer and cleaner. I hope that motorsports like Formula E will become a growing, fertile ground for understanding how to make cars fast, clean, and fun. I hope that the industry will be conscious on the impact it will have on the planet instead of focusing on short-term profits. I hope that our investment infrastructure will not only mean patching up roads, but also mean rethinking how public transportation plays into getting people from all walks of life around town. We have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and continue to race toward a future where transportation keeps us connected, and human.