T he story is set in 2050, the actual year when Toyota Motor Co., now the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, plans to stop producing cars with gasoline engines. Toyota announced its plans to abandon gasoline technology in 2014, a year before many of the world’s governments met in Paris to establish limits on carbon dioxide emissions and other gases contributing to global warming.
There are other externalities seriously reshaping the global car industry. Chief among them are traffic fatalities and injuries. Put simply, there are too many — 1.34 million global traffic deaths annually, according to records compiled by the World Health Organization.
Safety officials have estimated that 80 percent of those deaths are caused by human error — mistakes that could be corrected or avoided altogether by more intelligent machines. To that extent, car and technology companies worldwide are investing billions of dollars in advanced electronic safety systems such as blind-side monitoring and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.
The idea, literally, is to sense crash hazards before they can cause real harm — whether those hazards are in the overall driving environment or in the individual steering or accelerating choices of motorists themselves.
Ultimately, these technological developments will lead to cars that can drive themselves with little or no human intervention.
And so, with admitted speculation, let us enter our car world of the future:
It is newly 2050. We’ve just had one year with no traffic fatalities in the Western world — none, no car-crash deaths, no pedestrians mowed down in city crosswalks. Globally, traffic deaths are declining dramatically. Credit the installation of advanced electronic safety and communications systems, including cars that “talk” to other vehicles and to government infrastructures communicating the presence of hazards before they cause harm.
It seems that Elmar Degenhart’s stunning 2015 prediction has come to fruition — “zero traffic accidents . . . zero accidents are no longer a utopia,” he told an audience in September 2015 at the International Auto Show in Frankfurt, Germany.
Degenhart then was chairman of the board of Continental Technical Corp., a German firm specializing in developing intelligent transportation systems. He predicted that the rapid and continued development of those systems eventually would lead to an end-of-year report such as this — no traffic deaths.
At home in the District of Columbia on the first workday of the first workweek in the new year, traffic moves smoothly. There are no traffic jams, honking horns, no road rage of any sort. The scene from far aloft appears to be that of a motorized ballet with cars automatically pausing for one another, seeming to nod, wait, then go. There are no red, yellow or green lights. Traffic seems to be moving by invisible hand.
You might own your own personal transportation. But you might well be one of the many people who picked up a smartphone, tapped the screen and ordered a ride from Lyft or Uber.
Or maybe, you wanted to drive a car of your own for the week. You went to your smartphone, tapped the screen and ordered a Tesla, or a Chevrolet Bolt.
That’s Bolt, with a “B” — not to be confused with the Chevrolet Volt with a “V.” Both the Volt and the Bolt are electric cars from General Motors. But they can be distinguished by the manner in which they were brought to market.
The Volt came via a traditional route, through hoopla at the big North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The battery-electric Bolt, in a statement that shouted its break from Detroit’s automotive past, was presented at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — two weeks before the 2016 Detroit show. The Bolt could run 200 miles on a single charge and be recharged and ready to go in a few hours.
The air is clean this January morning in 2050. Toyota is the company that got all of the ink and much of the attention for its long-ago announcement to abandon gasoline engines. But the truth is that all major automobile manufacturers were doing something similar — improving electric batteries, reducing recharging times and regimens, eliminating electric drive-range anxiety.
BMW’s “ultimate driving machine” had become a battery-powered car that drives itself. Toyota and Honda had long perfected hydrogen fuel-cell cars that generate their own propulsion electricity, emitting little more than water vapor. There was little worry at Toyota, or anywhere else, about finally saying goodbye to gasoline.
Early in the century, Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, started an industry uproar by calling for a massive consolidation of original equipment manufacturers and their suppliers. His critics said his plea simply reflected the dire straits of his company. But others thought the man made sense. To wit: Was it logical for BMW, GM, FCA and others to invest the same money in developing components and technology that all used? Was a BMW transmission significantly different from one developed by Mercedes-Benz, GM or Toyota?
Answer: Not really.
And consumer demand worldwide changed the industry. Once, companies such as GM and Toyota would dump their “mature” designs on markets such as India, China, Africa and Russia. But consumers in those places came to expect the same advanced technologies they could get at a low cost from companies such as Kia, Hyundai and Mahindra.
So much has changed about cars and car culture over the years, not the least of which is affordability. That became a real problem around about 2015 when the average final transaction price of a new vehicle in the United States reached $33,566. Only four areas of the country, including the Washington region, could comfortably afford that tab.
“Comfortably” means affordability without jeopardizing food, clothing, health care or housing. Elsewhere in the country, consumers struggled with seven-year car loans.
Used vehicles, long the mainstay of the American public, became even more so. But people liked the idea of driving crash-free, an opportunity largely afforded by newer, more expensive vehicles. Notions of vehicle ownership and marque prestige eroded. Access to transportation became as important as transportation ownership. Vehicle sharing became common.
The car business changed on the manufacturing and retail ends. In the old days, it was all about horsepower, zoom-zoom, the more the merrier. But technology changed all of that — electronically enforced speed limits, matrix-managed transportation systems, and the simple value of using time in a self-driving car to read or actually get something done.
Horsepower for horsepower’s sake became less and less of a consumer concern. More important was a car’s ability to park itself, to come to you without you going to it, and its ability to keep you connected with everything important to your world while you are in transit.
It will still be possible to spot the old motor heads. We’ll be sitting on a bench, or around a table somewhere talking about horsepower as if it really mattered. Heck, we’ll be talking about cars as if they really mattered.
They still do — for the time being. But that time is changing . . . as rapidly as the apps on today’s smartphone.