America: creating the cars of the future

US firms such as Ford, Tesla and Google aim to keep auto innovation in the fast lane

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America: creating the cars of the future

Seeing into the future is simply a matter of keeping your eyes on the road in California. Among the gas-guzzling SUVs and muscle cars on the congested streets of LA and San Francisco, you can spy Teslas on Autopilot, Google cars with their 360-degree vision and now even Apple has a permit to test its self-driving car technology on public roads – each one offering a fascinating insight into the form and functionality of the cars of tomorrow.

America: creating the cars of the future

Such machines – part car and part digital device – sum up America’s uncanny ability to step on the gas when it comes to automotive innovation. In 1890, Henry Ford began to mass produce the Model T, making the dream of car ownership a bone-juddering reality for many. From curvaceous Chevvies with fins to luxurious Lincolns, the factories of Detroit churned out thirsty classics for more than a century.

Today, this automotive heritage is inspiring the dotcom innovators of Silicon Valley to create utterly new forms of mobility. To familiar blue-chip parts like axles and gearboxes we can add blue-sky concepts such as artificial intelligence, advanced sensor systems and even a space on the dashboard where the steering-wheel used to be. 

Putting the two together results in a powerful hybrid. Former Ford president Mark Fields doubled the company’s investment in R&D in a bid to launch a driverless car by 2021. “There will be a growing per cent of the industry that will be fully autonomous vehicles,” he told the BBC. While General Motors has also been testing self-driving vehicles.

Driving on Autopilot
Tesla is already well on the way towards autonomy. In 2008, the battery-powered Tesla Roadster broke the mould by combining eco-friendly credentials with sportiness. It was the first car to be both right on and fun. Today the Tesla Model S takes driving to a totally new level of convenience. Its latest downloadable software update called Autopilot means the vehicle can now manage its own speed, brake to avoid collisions and parallel park when it spots a space. 

It’s still early days for the technology, but its introduction reveals the company’s can-do, risk-averse philosophy. Chief executive Elon Musk explained the roll-out in a blog post: "When used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.”

The visionaries at Google are going even further by planning to remove the driver altogether. Progress is steady but sure. Their test fleet – adapted Toyota Priuses and Lexus RX450hs fitted with sensors and artificial intelligence – have already successfully clocked up more than 1.5 million miles, navigating busy urban roads as well as highways. 

So far so good. But the next step, it seems, is to throw out the old-style car and develop a totally new mobility machine. Enter the prototype Google vehicle. Just tap the touchscreen of this almost cartoon-like capsule on wheels, then sit back and relax as it transports you to your destination. 

Is it really a car?
To design the prototype Google knew it needed new ideas. So instead of hiring an experienced car designer it opted for someone from outside the industry – a product designer called YooJung Ahn. Having a clean slate, Ahn believes, gave her and her team the freedom to develop a self-driving car with no steering-wheel or pedals.

“Not having a steering-wheel or pedals was actually our choice,” Ahn said to Fortune magazine. “When we started the prototype we didn’t start with a traditional car in our mind. We asked what is the very minimum we needed in order to get people from A to B? What is the most optimised design for safety and user experience?

Slightly taller and more compact than most other small cars, Ahn’s prototype is destined to become a design classic – not because it is beautiful but because it makes such innovative use of technology and benefits road safety. Its geeky height and advanced sensors, for example, mean it can see 200m in every direction – so blindspots are a thing of the past. 

Alert and all-seeing it may be, but the Google car cannot yet predict the future – although its top boffins are no doubt hoping to crack this age-old challenge. But you don’t need a crystal ball to see that a combination of traditional car-making skills and cutting-edge digital technology is keeping American automotive innovation firmly in the fast lane. Even if no one’s driving.

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