What will the cars of 2050 look like? What will power them? Will they even have a steering wheel? Sven Beiker peers under the bonnet of tomorrow’s autos.

Car companies have recently been telling us what the car of 2020 will be like: autonomous is one word used, electric is another, and it will be connected to the internet too. Sound exciting? It is, but it’s doubtful you’ll find all of this on the forecourt in the next seven years (cars typically get completely redesigned every five to seven years). However, the directions being proposed are a very good starting point to look even further and ask the question: what might the car of 2050 look like?

For a start, will there even be cars in 2050? Will an invention that will be 150 years old by then be replaced by something better? Will environmental concerns kill it? Will people become tired of getting behind the wheel, as recent studies suggest? The answer seems to be “maybe”, but the reality is that the automobile is a very liberating and flexible means of transportation. It fulfills people’s desire to move around freely and independently. And – done right - the automobile can be a sustainable and safe means of transportation.

But we must also acknowledge this form of mobility comes at a premium, as polar ice melts, megacities become suffocated by smog and congestion, resources dwindle, and around 1.2 million people get killed in traffic accidents globally every year. We know why: we want to be mobile, and our mobility has some negative implications.

So what can – actually, must – we do in order to make the automobile of the year 2050 cleaner, safer, leaner and still enjoyable to use? This is a crucial question: mass-motorisation in emerging countries means there will be more than three billion vehicles on the planet in 2050, compared with around one billion today.

Hands-free driving

The automobile in 2050 will be self-driving. Companies are working on concepts allowing cars to cruise along on the highway without driver intervention, many of which are likely to be seen on our roads.

There is the Super Cruise from General Motors, which controls the vehicle on long highway stretches when not much is happening. Then there is the Traffic Jam Assistant from BMW; cars move along in a congested traffic area just like a school of fish. Or there’s Road Train from the European Satre project which includes Volvo, where one vehicle with a professional driver leads a platoon of other vehicles, connected virtually and following like pearls on a string along the highway – turning the commute into possibly more productive time as the drivers can now work or rest. And when the car makes it to its destination, it can park itself in a high-tech parking structure, just as Audi has demonstrated.

Will the driver need to do anything at all? Will there still be a steering wheel? Cars will probably require that drivers monitor what the vehicle does and switch from one mode to another – such as highway driving to city driving. There will probably still be a steering wheel, but some models could have a little joystick that the driver only uses rarely.

Driving is likely to get much safer (human error still accounts for the majority of all accidents) and also much more efficient, as centralised traffic control will lead to a smoother flow and less congestion. But how much of an effect this new technology has will depend on how widely it is rolled out.

The changes might not stop there. We may also have some other kinds of automobiles, which are small, highly efficient mobility pods similar to the GM EN-V concept or autonomous vehicles like the Induct Navia. These will be urban, flexible solutions to move people around.

In many metro areas, a well-organised public transportation system will be the most effective way to move large numbers of people. However, some commuters might not want to take it, either because of network problems, schedules or safety concerns. Publicly organised on-demand transportation systems that can accommodate up to six people will bring travellers automatically to their destination in downtown areas, and then move on to serve others. Customers will simply enter their destination and payment information – think of it as a totally automated taxi system.

Digital frontier

Personal mobility will become more of a service, one that companies such as Google have recognised. The search and computing giant has become strongly involved in creating automated vehicles. And some think the car needs to serve us in other ways, whether we drive it or it drives itself. Many car companies are already working with Apple to integrate Siri into automobiles, creating virtual personal assistants in the car to help us with routes, traffic information, and the scheduling of our day. Our vehicles will be fully integrated into the digital lifestyle of 2050 – whatever that turns out to be.

It is hard to imagine what the world of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google will be like in 30 years time, but we can assume that everything that has a digital representation will be available in our cars. The automobile seems to be the final frontier for the digital lifestyle – some people want to be disconnected while driving – but in decades to come it will be completely connected and – hopefully – safe to use.

But what will actually drive these cars? Electricity? Hydrogen? Or will it still guzzle petrol and diesel? At first glance, one might think the good-old internal combustion engine is on its way out. However, its demise may not be quite so quick. In general, the daily commute will be in an electric vehicle with no combustion engine. The electricity grid is likely to include a much higher percentage of renewable energy by then, so everyday driving will be cleaner as well. But what about longer trips? Batteries might allow a 500-mile range, but they might be heavy and expensive, and recharging them might take time.

So, the ultimate solution for long-distance car travel might still be a combustion engine. Research is underway by institutions and car companies across the world to further improve efficiency and cut emissions. In 2050 a small, turbo-charged, rotary engine might serve as a range extender – used only a few days a year, but good to have on board. Another range extender might be wireless power transfer to the vehicle as it moves along the highway.

An alternative is hydrogen-powered vehicles, converting hydrogen into electricity in a fuel cell. This would result in a smooth electric drive and only water vapour coming out the tailpipe. While fuel-cell technology has already come a long way (Daimler and Toyota are at the forefront of this evolution), there are still challenges to overcome, such as where to get the hydrogen from. It is unclear if there will be an answer by 2050.

Morphing motors

People value flexibility; just as they have come to expect it from their smartphones and laptops, so will they want it from their car? As mobile technology has allowed us to make decisions on everything in an instant and away from home, we will want those same freedoms in our cars.

The commuter of the future may have a "personal mobility portfolio", with the car being only one part of it. An automobile might be there to drive for pleasure on the weekend (the affection for the car will probably not go away completely). As mobile internet becomes ever-more powerful it will be totally normal and convenient to step out on the street and make an immediate decision. You could hail a self-driving shared vehicle. You could jump into the car of a social-media friend, who just happens to be driving by and going in the same direction. Or you will take public transportation if is the best option. The car will be totally integrated into a greater mobility network.

We are already seeing beyond existing car-sharing schemes, such as ZipCar, where people can book cars for the hours in which they actaully need them. There will be a network of different options to integrate services in places such as airports, all of them combined in one app on our 2050 communication device. We basically tell the app where we want to go and, based on our preferences, three different optimised transportation modes will be offered, similar to the three different routes that a GPS navigation system offers us today.

There's one more question to ask: what will the 2050 car look like? Will we still be able to recognise it? It might still have a steering wheel, maybe just a joystick. It is safe to assume that it will still have four seats and wheels and might still resemble a metal box. But that’s where the similarities may end.

Carbon fibre or other lightweight material might replace steel. The design will be a mix of efficient contours (low aerodynamic drag) and emotional styling. And maybe there will be some sort of morphing shape. MIT has looked into some very promising vehicle concepts that allow for small footprint in the city and a more safety and dynamic configuration for the open road.

The car of 2050 might be relatively easy to recognise, which might not be true for the phone or computer. This is because a car is a car is a car – it is supposed to transport people and goods and as long as people continue to be as tall as they are cars won’t look too much different. But the personal automobile as we know it will have much competition: from remote-controlled, on-demand pod and personalised public transportation. And in our livable cities, good old-fashioned walking and cycling, too.

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