The Road Ahead

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am


WE KNOW cars are bad for the environment, sitting in traffic jams is a pain and the price of petrol is obscene. But despite what you may hope, cars are here to stay. The feel of cruising down a road is incomparable, and no matter how good public transport gets, 'people will want their own journeys,' says Dale Harrow, Professor of Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London.

'A lot of people are conservative and a lot of markets like the cars that we have always had,' says Gernot Brecht, a teacher at FH Pforzheim Design School and former designer at Renaul. However, change is afoot around the world. New technologies and energy-efficient strategies are changing the look and feel of our automobiles.

While Brecht doubts some people's ability to adapt to new advancements, he believes there is 'a second and more exciting approach that will happen, in which, due to new technologies, cars will look very, very different.'

'The biggest thing for car builders in the 21st century is to be energy efficient,' says Brecht. Harrow agrees, seeing a combination of environmental decline and limited space in emerging markets making it necessary.

'The key word is going to be efficiency in terms of use but in manufacturing and recycling issues as well,' he says. 'It will come to the fore of people's minds not to waste energy. It's also about the social change so as not to be seen to be wasteful.'

Currently, the only solutions we have are electric or hybrid engines. But soon, batteries will allow for engines to be more compact, possibly placed on top of the wheels thus changing the car package from traditional types such as the sedan. This will lead to simpler, lighterweight vehicles.

'Cars will become smaller again after having a period where cars became bigger, but we will have the option for luxurious and expensive small cars too,' says Harrow. New cities are being planned with the idea of keeping the conventional car out. As cities tackle congestion and build more pedestrian areas, this will further encourage the use of the smaller car and lightweight electric vehicles that can be used within inner urban areas.

But of course, much of this will be based on specific markets and international taste; cars have traditionally been designed for the western world, America and Europe being the biggest purchasers. But with the emerging markets of China and India, Harrow wonders 'how the local culture of design and taste will start to impact on our cars, and how this will be integrated into the way people see aesthetics and traditional beauty?'

Thankfully, the idea of varying global design tastes won't be much of a problem, with customisation being one of the easiest and most exciting future advancements. Brands such as Aston Martin already let you personally tailor every facet of a vehicle, but that's just the beginning. 'Customers are going to want to be more involved in this, and we're going to see much more technology able to do that,' says Harrow. Changing the colour of your car, glass tint, or having components made in different colours will all be as simple as a push of a button.

That will be only a minor part of our rapidly developing technology, with the most major advancement being with use of smartphones in relation to a car's interior: 'People are a lot more aware of carriable items,' says Harrow. '[Smartphones] will eventually link to your car and use the same screen technology to organise and make the dashboard less cluttered.'

The dashboard will allow seamless connection between home, office and car in terms of entertainment, navigation and information. 'The most successful car brands will be the ones that can make this happen with external service providers,' says Sam Livingstone, Director of Car Design Research, a design consultancy.

The use of external connections will allow cars to be somewhat intelligent; virtually speaking to other vehicles, automatically planning the best routes and, in what seems like pure science fiction, driving themselves.

'The technology is only 10 or so years away,' says Livingstone, but people just are not ready for it, is the unanimous opinion of experts. Not only would it be terrifying to allow a car to navigate the roads of China by itself, for example, but 'it is simply still the wish for drivers to do it themselves,' says Brecht. 'Driving is just a personal thing.'