People in search of sustainable living can still consider giving up their cars, but no one denies their advantages: quick displacements, increased mobility and autonomy. That is why, although the advances in public transportation and the return of bicycles are remarkable, you bet individual motorized transport will still be around. Not coincidentally, all advances try to make the Karl Benz’s machine safer and less polluting, referring to the German who was the first to commercially produce cars in the 19th century, even before the American Henry Ford launched the series production of Model T in 1908.
When it comes to propulsion, the big bet is the lithium-ion battery-powered motors that take the first steps after some unsuccessful initiatives in the past. For other investors, drivers won't be necessary anymore with the rise of standalone cars. Considering what today's cars have as trump cards – mostly made of recyclable materials like plastic and metals – can become even more environmentally friendly.
Batteries charged for an electrified future
Since the South African visionary Elon Musk launched the first Tesla Roadster in 2006, electric cars seem to have finally come to stay. From the first model, created by the Scotsman Robert Anderson in the 1830s, to projects abandoned by major automakers such as GM's EV1 in the early 21st century, the new generation of electric cars has gained ground with the advancement of batteries and the demand for less polluting vehicles in times of climate change.
China is the protagonist in the industry. Thank to the country's high levels of pollution, China is the largest consumer of electric cars worldwide, having produced 680,000 units in 2017, more than the rest of the world combined. The government is even considering applying penalties to automakers that do not provide the minimum electric rates, as well as halting the sale of gasoline vehicles. Anyone who wants to buy a battery-powered car today in China has a state subsidy of up to US$ 10,000.
Targeting this market, there are currently over 300 companies working on the development of electric cars in the country, "but just a few of them are developing technology," Brian Gu, President of XPeng Motors, said to Bloomberg. According to him, only 10% of these companies are considering innovation, while the vast majority are old players in the traditional auto industry. Tesla, by Elon Musk, headquartered in the US, faces difficulties. Only at the end of March, he lost US$ 5 billion in market value and suffered several casualties in his highest executive positions. At least two of these professionals have migrated to potentially competing companies like Intel and Waymo - from the same group as Google -, who are now entering the automotive industry.
Musk has benefited from subsidies in the United States, which provide a credit of US$ 7,500 for each of the first 200,000 electric vehicles sold by each manufacturer in the country. Six months after reaching this mark, the incentives decreased until they disappear entirely after one year. With about 140,000 Teslas running through American cities, Musk cars will soon be no longer competitive. Analysts fear the temporary encouragement may cease to exist with President Donald Trump's new climate policy.
Better aligned with the fight against global warming, the UK has set an end to the sale of combustion cars after 2040 and has allocated £ 1 billion in subsidies for drivers who want to buy electric or hybrid vehicles. Currently, almost every major automaker has at least one electric model in its portfolio. A ranking of the British magazine Auto Express chose the best for sale in 2018: Nissan Leaf and e-NV200 Combi, Volkswagen e-Golf and e-up!, BMW i3, Renault ZOE, Tesla Model S and Model X, Hyundai Ioniq and Smart ForTwo ED
Drivers on self-driving cars without steering wheel
The next great revolution, however, is getting the driver himself out of the equation. The latest competitor in the race for the standalone car was Intel, which has been a successful processor manufacturer thus far. Last year, the company paid US$ 15 billion for Mobileye, an Israeli startup that produces a system that predicts when the driver is about to hit something and, if necessary, triggers the brakes.
Google was one of the first to go forward. It is highly likely that the company that has designed Waymo specifically for standalone cars could be the first to put its cars on the streets with no one behind the wheel. The company executives expect a safe vehicle to be driven without any human intervention. However, no other company has reached the highest level of autonomy when the car does not even have a steering wheel and pedals and can be driven without the intervention of a driver.
Cautious analysts believe that, within 10 years, we will be able to get out of the car in front of a restaurant or theater while the car searches for a parking space by itself. GM, however, is more optimistic. By the end of next year, GM plans a similar service to that of Uber or Cabify in which one can call a vehicle via cell phone - a Chevrolet Bolt - and be taken to the destination, but without a driver.
Uber has experimented with the service for some time. However, tests were discontinued in March after a woman was hit by one of the company's standalone cars in Arizona, causing the first fatal crash of its kind in the short history of those vehicles. Uber's interest is not coincidental. Services such as that of the company should be the first to use standalone cars, since earnings from the services division would compensate the high cost of these vehicles at first, still not very accessible to the average consumer.
Back to nature
Although much of the materials that make up the cars are recyclable, from the steel bodywork to the plastic panel, there is still much to change. Last year, BMW surprised visitors at CES, the world's most significant technology event, by presenting a concept car that had moss and other plants composing the floor. Having plants as part of the car still seems impractical, but in recent years, materials such as carbon fiber, acrylic and copper have gained space within luxury brands like Bentley. Also, vegan substitutes for leather, fast-growing woods like bamboo or even banana leaf have increased the sustainable appeal of these vehicles.
To industry pundits, such news are patterns for drivers dealing with the imminence of electric and standalone cars. “The interior will become more focused around screens, so it will be important to have analog candies to delight people”, says Gorden Wagener, Mercedes-Benz global design director, to Wired. “People like jewelry, something tactile, something you can feel, something durable.” Although they follow the developments, cars will still carry the human traits.they follow the developments, cars will still carry the human idiosyncrasies.