It’s easy to forget how integral automobiles are to our lives. As American actress and electric vehicle (EV) early adopter Alexandra Paul notably said: “The cars we drive say a lot about us.” We’ve come a long way since the Ford T to have car models to suit various terrains, needs, and even styles.
But moving into the future, the use of automobiles poses huge challenges to the human race. Fuel consumption is much higher than it is sustainable, and urban mobility is facing huge constraints in terms of a lack of space and saturation. The automotive industry has gone through many attempts to innovate, and while some of them may seem to be far off futuristic dreams, others may be much closer to reality than we realise.
Here are top 10 cars of the future that exist today.
1. Flying Cars
Elon Musk may not like the idea of a flying car, but the integration of flight into our daily transport has been a dream of science fiction fans for decades. Slovakian company AeroMobil has created a prototype that incorporates flight features — such as avionics equipment, autopilot, and a parachute deployment system — into a vehicle that fits into any standard parking space, makes use of regular gasoline, and can fit right in with other vehicles on the road.
The current prototype, AeroMobil 3.0, is said to be able to use any airport in the world, but will also be able to take off from and land on surfaces that are just a few hundred meters long. It has been undergoing regular flight-testing programmes since October 2014.
It’s not likely that this will be widely adopted in the next 5 years — there are many regulatory issues that still stand in the way of allowing every family to use a flying car — but adaptable vehicles that work for both sky and land, and across different terrains, is a huge step forward in automotive innovation.
2. Talking Cars
While virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now can easily be incorporated into our cars with the use of smartphones, automobiles have moved beyond just talking to drivers — they now talk to each other.
Automotive innovation is currently exploring V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communications, to see how cars can use wireless connections to ‘talk’ to each other. With more than a million people killed in vehicle accidents annually, safety is a huge issue that needs to be addressed, and enabling vehicles to communicate or sense each other may make up for any human error to protect and prevent accidents on roads.
This goes beyond the beeping sensors that are now commonplace in most new car models — V2V communications will allow cars to broadcast their position, speed, steering-wheel position, brake status, and other data to other vehicles within a few hundred meters. Other vehicles will then be able to use this information to understand their surroundings, and adapt to the situation by revealing potential problems to their drivers.
General Motors is one of key players in this innovation, having already committed this technology to their 2017 model Cadillac, but current world leader in V2V is Israeli company Autotalks, who introduced the world’s first automotive-grade hackerproof chipset back in 2013. They have already developed an integrated V2X (vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure) roof antenna with the Audi AG, and a 2013 news report stated that car-to-car chipsets will be installed in certain high-end models by 2015.
3. Smart Cars
But V2V technology isn’t the only way that cars are getting smarter; there are already many more smart features in place than you think. Israeli company MobilEye is responsible for a lot of the safety features available in car models from the US, Japan, and Europe: monocular cameras, for example, along with sophisticated software, assist and notify drivers when there are potential threats, such as cyclists, pedestrians, debris, and barriers. They can even detect traffic lights and read road signs.
In some car models, MobilEye has even connected cameras to brakes, so that vehicles can brake in time to avoid potential accidents. As of early this month, the Vehicle Safety Technology (VST) Pilot Program of the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission has installed MobilEye’s technology into NYC taxis.
Another recent innovation, the stop-start system, has become not only accepted, but expected in new automobile models. The technology allows car engines to stop consuming fuel in certain traffic situations, and is said to increase fuel economy by 5 – 10 percent. Navigant Research — an American market research firm — has estimated a growth in the number of vehicles equipped with stop-start technology: from 8.8 million in 2013, to 55.4 million worldwide by 2022.
4. Hover Cars
When this YouTube video of a Volkswagen hovercar went viral back in 2012, fans were disappointed to find out that it wasn’t real. But while Volkswagen didn’t actually create a doughnut-like hovercar that floated inches off the floor, we can’t discount the existence of hovercars entirely.
Hendo’s hoverboard — a noisy, heavy, and unsustainable piece of equipment that levitates the user inches off the floor and works the ramp easily — has revealed that it envisions using that technology on buildings to protect them from earthquake and floods, and not on vehicles. Nonetheless, the existence of the technology does mean that the future of functional, practical hovercrafts is not too far from becoming reality.
Aerofex, an American company, has come somewhat closer to the vision of a hovercraft we’ve visualised. A prototype created in 2012 was able to lift a few inches off the ground and respond to the pilot’s natural sense of balance, like a Segway does. The first deliveries are expected to commence in 2017, and interested customers can now reserve an Aero-X with a $5,000 refundable deposit.
There are still questions on how sustainable and practical a hovercraft will be, but this doesn’t make the innovation any less anticipated.
5. Rocket Car
Sure, we can make cars fly, but how fast do these cars actually go? While the Back To The Future franchise features a DeLorean so fast that it leaves scorch marks on the floor and rips through time and space itself, we’re not that close just yet. That said, people are already building insanely fast cars today.
2015 is especially exciting because it is the year that the UK-designed and built Bloodhound SSC — which is essentially a rocket car — is due to race in South Africa and match or exceed 1,000 miles per hour (1,609 km/h), breaking the sound barrier and achieving a new land record.
It may retain the basic requirements of being a car (having four wheels and being in complete control of a driver), but its engines produce more than 135,000 horsepower — more than 6 times the power of all the Formula 1 cars on a starting grid put together! The car is well-equipped to withstand the friction that such speed will generate: its front half has the build of a racing car, with a carbon fibre monocoque, while its back has the metallic framework and panels of an aircraft.
6. Electric Cars
This is probably what comes to mind when you first think about cars of the future. It’s expected: one of our main concerns, after all, is how to ensure the sustainability of the fuel our automobiles run on. Fuel prices often fluctuate, and the use of petroleum in our vehicles causes numerous undesirable environmental effects, like global warming.
The name on everybody’s lips when it comes to electric cars is Tesla. Tesla’s Model S is one of the most advanced electric cars on the market — and one of the most coveted. On a single charge (which potentially takes only 40 minutes), the Model S is able to travel 500km without requiring a drop of petroleum.
The car is currently supported by Tesla’s supercharger networks, which are spread out across the US, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. But poised to take over the Model S is Tesla’s newest SUV, the Model X. It is due to be released at the end of the year, and will incorporate new technologies such as an autopilot driver-assist.
7. Self-Driving Cars
Everyone knows about Google’s experimentation with the self-driving car. Their little white buggy has been seen in various videos on the Internet, navigating small roads and parking itself. The future of driverless cars is so close we can almost smell it.
And as a result, everyone else is jumping on board. Uber hinted that they may be entering this space, while Chinese web giant Baidu just announced that their driverless car will be available at the end of 2015.
But while driverless cars may create a brand new niche market of their own, US company Cruise is planning to infiltrate the existing automobile industry. Instead of developing cars that can drive themselves, they have built a system that can be mounted onto existing cars, helping drivers navigate the highways. And while this won’t make our vehicles completely driverless, it is much more than just cruise control.
With sensor units placed on the top of the car near its windshield, actuators to control steering and driving, as well as a computer in the trunk, Cruise’s RP-1 will be able to steer, brake, and accelerate to keep you in your lane. However, it will still require a human driver behind the wheel to keep to traffic laws.
For now, it works with just the Audi A4 and S4, and plans to be available for other cars in the future. But with a painfully high price point of $10,000, it won’t be a viable for everyone yet.
8. Alternative Fuel Sources
Electric is the main focus of most car manufacturers at this point, but it isn’t the only source of fuel that cars can use. Carmakers are still attempting to suss out the sweet spot between fuel efficiency and affordability.
The Honda FCX Clarity, for example, is the world’s first dedicated platform hydrogen vehicle. First engineered 10 years ago, the current FCX Clarity model has a fuel-cell stack so compact that it fits in the center armrest, and produces almost twice the amount of hydrogen than it did 10 years ago. Hydrogen is largely untapped resource, and this is largely because obtaining pure hydrogen is a difficult task; it’s only available in a few countries in Europe, the US, and Japan.
But take the concept of using gases to power a car a step further, and you have a company called Zero Pollution Motors (ZPM) — it has created the AirPod, the world’s first car to be powered by compressed air.
By harnessing the energy expelled in releasing compressed air, it has made fuel availability essentially endless, since our access to air is abundant. The Airpod can simply be topped up with air from a compressed air station, using a mechanism with a much larger capacity than those used to fill tires with air. This will take less than 5 minutes, and cost less than $2 each time.
9. Amphibious Cars
As if it’s not enough making cars take to the skies, manufacturers have also begun experimenting with ways to make cars swim. Surprisingly, the technology has been around for a long time. Here in Singapore, we’re familiar with the large buses that double as boats in the Duck Tours, but amphibious cars are becoming more and more advanced as well.
The WaterCar Panther, which went on sale just last year, is said to be able to adapt to water in as quickly as 15 seconds, and reach water speeds of 45mph — which is as fast as a speedboat — while navigating rough terrains as easily as any jeep.
But a truly amphibious car is one that can dive underwater, and move through the seas as easily as it navigates the roads. Inspired by James Bond’s famous sub-Lotus from the movie “The Spy Who Loved Me”, the Submarine Sports Car is able to submerge completely into the water, and with propellers at the rear as well as two water jets, reach a maximum speed of 75mph (121kph) below the waves.
The car is still a convertible, so passengers must be prepared to get wet, though it does have two built-in scuba tanks and diving regulators to allow two people to remain underwater for up to an hour.
With rising water levels around the world, the possibilities afforded by vehicles that can handle multiple mediums will definitely come in useful.
10. Foldable Cars
With large cities becoming more cramped, one of the biggest urban mobility challenges is the lack of parking space. In an island city like Singapore where space is scarce, it’s difficult to set aside large areas for parking, resulting in the need for vertical construction (building carparks above or below existing buildings) and high parking prices. It’s a nice idea to be able to pack your car into a suitcase the way Tony Stark packs his Ironman suit, but technology hasn’t brought us there just yet.
However, foldable cars are a reality. The Armadillo T, a Korean made mini-car is capable of parking itself and then tucking its back over its body, allowing it to take up half the average parking space. There are some limitations to the car — it can do 62 miles off a 10-minute charge, but only hits a maximum speed of 37 mph.
The Hiriko Fold has a similar concept. The eco-friendly two-seater runs on a lithium-ion battery, is able to adjust itself to only take up half its base, making it easier to park in small spaces. It also has a zero-turn radius, allowing it to spin on the spot — a huge boon for anyone who’s had to struggle with tight parking spaces.
In discussing the future of automobiles, it’s easy to believe that cars of the future are a far off dream. The truth is they are very much present, and cars today have already adopted new innovations that are very much accessible to many of us. This list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a great reminder that we should keep our eyes and minds open to what the automotive industry can bring.