The road to progress

The road to progress
The road to progress

Technology and infrastructure advances bring safer, smoother mobility

If you’ve bought a car in Japan recently, it probably knows how to stop on its own. Last year, more than half the vehicles sold in the country had automatic braking features. By 2020, the government aims to equip 90 percent of new cars with a system that can sense and evade potential collisions. Japan has become a leader in pushing technology out of necessity: The country's rapidly aging population means a glut of older drivers who are more prone to accidents. But it's not just Japan's problem. Globally, crashes kill 1.25 million people a year and injure up to 50 million. Human error contributes to 90 percent of these incidents. So what if we removed the human from the equation?

Popular culture imagines automotive innovation as a thrill ride: flying cars that whisk their cargo off concrete and into the skies. But it’s practicality that defines the real future of the transportation sector, and collision deterrence is only part of the story. By 2030, widespread integration of new technologies could radically alter human participation in the driving experience. Advances in wireless telecommunication, sensors and artificial intelligence will mean safer and smarter vehicles and infrastructure, creating big economic opportunity for both riders and industry.

By 2020, the Japanese government aims to equip 90 percent of new cars with a system that can sense potential collisions and evade them.

Steering towards a better driving experience

Safety is perhaps the primary benefit. In addition to collision sensors, vehicles will be equipped with technology to self-diagnose mechanical issues and networked with customer care centers to deal with them. “A good analogy now would be your smartphone,” said John Suh, executive vice pesident of Hyundai Ventures. “The kind of device where the computer and software system can monitor itself, and report back to manufacturers.” He notes that you won’t need to think about your next tire rotation; the car will identify when it’s required.

Networked vehicles also will be a boon to driving efficiency. In their 2016 report, The Future of Automotive, PSFK and Microsoft note how sensor-equipped cars will be able to gather and analyze “information from their immediate surroundings—road conditions, other vehicles, etc.—alongside real-time information like weather and traffic data” and adjust their navigation or driving performance accordingly. This can help the car run more efficiently, but also potentially reduce congestion. According to Inrix, a software and data outfit, traffic congestion has carried a hefty price tag for the United States: $160 billion worth of time and fuel was lost in 2015. At the very least, traffic information will help individuals on the road prepare. “When real-time data is available, even in a congested environment, people tend to be more calm about it because they know what to expect,” said Karen Philbrick, executive director of Mineta Transportation Institute.

A new generation on the move

These innovations are responding in part to shifting generational habits. “We’re in a culture where people love their cars,” said venture strategist Zack Huhn. But, he notes, “We are beginning to see a transition away from that.” According to McKinsey, the share of young people 16 to 24 years who hold a driver’s license in the U.S. decreased from 76 percent in 2000 to 71 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, those who do drive are less likely to own their own car, eschewing the logistical and financial commitments of ownership. McKinsey notes that one in 10 new cars sold globally in 2030 could be shared in a high-disruption scenario. The rise of smart cars buoys this trend. Today, connected vehicles make up approximately 20 percent of sales, and that proportion could reach 90 percent in a few years. These smart cars can sync to countless personal settings so drivers don't have to readjust every time they get behind the wheel of a shared car.

Geography also is driving this transition, as the world is urbanizing at a rapid pace. By 2030, the number of megacities—metropolises with at least 10 million people—is expected to rise to 41, and by 2050, two of every three people will be living in a city. These environments simply are too dense to rely on traditional forms of transport. To relieve the congestion, smart-car-like innovations are being applied to urban infrastructure to help it run more efficiently—and incentivize residents to take public transportation. Several U.S. cities, including New York and San Francisco, already have traffic signals that can detect oncoming buses in specially designated lanes, turning green to give them priority over other traffic.

Investments in public transit and the shared transportation economy are particularly important for individuals who can’t drive, said Philbrick. We have the “potential to improve mobility, especially when we’re talking about the aging and disabled This will increase accessibility and independence, without having to rely on others.”

Rise of the megalopolis: Understanding megacities

The United Nations defines a megacity as one containing at least 10 million people. They include places like Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, London, Paris and Lagos. Their numbers—and the size of populations filling them—are steadily on the rise.


10 megacities Total population: 153 million people


28 megacities Total population: 453 million people


31 megacities Total population: 500 million people


41 megacities Total population: 730 million people

These bustling environments will continue to develop into vast cultural melting pots likely to contain the majority of the world’s citizens. But future megacities will require intricate systems of networked services to ensure their infrastructures, economies and governments work smoothly—and big data could be the key. There are organizations around the world already at work on the implementation of sensors to collect information—on things like traffic or water consumption—to help keep our growing urban environments stable, mobile and safe.

The general manager of Mobileye, Michael Backman, discusses his company’s accident prevention technology

The value of being connected

Car ownership isn’t going away, however, and innovations in connectivity could have vital benefits for those who do own automobiles. With the adoption of cloud computing and artificial intelligence, cars could act as personal assistants, reading emails aloud, sending calendar reminders, and calling ahead to confirm a restaurant reservation.

All this leads to big revenue opportunities for industry incumbents—as well as a range of technology companies seeking to enter the market. An emerging middle class in the developing world will keep private car sales strong despite the rise of e-hailing and car sharing.In China alone, it is predicted that 30 million vehicles will be sold annually within a few years. Meanwhile, the value pool from new innovations like connectivity services and feature upgrades Could reach $1.5 trillion by 2030. M. Daniel Smith, president of Capstone Financial Group, offers data mining as an example of a new revenue source. “Three-fourths of what we’re doing is just data, coming from everywhere. Coming from motion sensors, coming from receptors in the vehicles, and coming from the cities themselves.” He notes, for example, that companies will collect data on music choices that could then be sold to streaming services, satellite music providers and others.

Are you ready for a tech-driven future to help improve life on the road and beyond? Test your knowledge by taking this quiz.

  • question 1

    On average, how many hours do U.S. drivers spend on the road each year?
  • question 2

    By 2030, shared vehicles could account for what percentage of miles driven by new cars?
  • question 3

    How much could the software development market for autonomous vehicles be worth by 2030?

Tech advances, human resources

Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is nonetheless still years away. According to McKinsey, even in a progressive scenario, highly autonomous cars will account for no more than 15 percent of passenger vehicles sold globally in 2030. But continued development of novel innovations in vehicles and infrastructure will require a workforce to service them. Philbrick notes that the industry will, by necessity, create jobs focused around data analytics, engineering and other high-skilled trades.


Karen Philbrick, Ph.D. discusses the growing diversity of disciplines creating better mobility

This workforce shift is poised to coincide with a projected need to replenish labor in the transportation industry. A joint report by the U.S. Departments of Education, Transportation and Labor said that addressing the cumulative effect of industry growth and employees transitioning out of jobs in the transport sector would require employers to hire approximately 4.6 million workers in the 10-year span between 2012 and 2022. The greatest demand is for semi-skilled and skilled jobs in operations and maintenance.


Karen Philbrick, Ph.D. discusses the growing diversity of disciplines creating better mobility

The cost of gridlock

Sitting in traffic is stressful. It wastes time, creates anxiety and impedes mobility. But beyond the impact on peace of mind caused by traffic jams, there also are hard costs associated with congestion on our freeways.

  • More than 2 out of every 5 miles of America’s urban interstates are congested

  • Americans spend 42 hours per year stuck in traffic

  • Traffic delays cost the U.S. $160 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2015

  • The yearly cost of traffic could reach $2,300 per U.S. household by 2030

  • More than 2 out of every 5 miles of America’s urban interstates are congested

  • Americans spend 42 hours per year stuck in traffic

  • Traffic delays cost the U.S. $160 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2015

  • The yearly cost of traffic could reach $2,300 per U.S. household by 2030

Headed in the right direction

But this future isn’t too far off. Japan’s transport ministry announced in February that the country would begin discussions at the United Nations on developing and codifying international safety standards for automatic brakes in cars. While hurdles remain, it’s not a tough sell: The adoption of autonomous features could save thousands of lives annually and upgrade personal mobility for a diverse range of people.

Dr. Burford Furman and his team work on a prototype of an autonomous vehicle that rides the Spartan Superway.

It’s one tentative step toward a revolution that could make major improvements to how we move from one place to another—and by extension how we live.

“Throughout human history it’s been proven that every time we have a paradigm shift in transportation, we double our quality of life,” Huhn said. “We’re heading in that direction again.”