ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.
I used to think the future of cars was all about better powertrains and fuels. If the auto industry could only make a transition away from petroleum-based internal combustion—so I thought—and toward electricity (and other low-carbon fuels), then we could drive happily ever after.
Then, the transition actually started happening. It’s far from complete, but the stricter federal fuel economy standards that passed two years ago put automakers on a path toward an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. That was a monster piece of legislation that will result in a massive shift toward battery-powered vehicles—from conventional hybrids to pure electric cars.
But it turns out that changes in powertrains and fuels were only a precursor to a more monumental (pending) transportation revolution. It will be based less on how our cars are powered and more on IT: networked map-based sensor-driven computer technology.
To better understand how automotive technology is morphing with personal computing and web-based systems, here’s a look at five companies that are making this revolution happen. It’s not surprising that only one of the companies, Tesla Motors, has any resemblance to a traditional auto manufacturer—although its similarities don’t go much further than the fact that it produces a product with four wheels.
Tesla: It’s All About the Batteries
As bond-investment expert Jeff Gundlach said in July, and repeated on CNBC yesterday, Tesla’s value—and transformative potential—is not in the Model S or other upcoming electric vehicles. “Tesla is all about the batteries,” he said.
Gundlach sees the Tesla’s future $5 billion ginormous battery factory as the company’s way forward, making Tesla a primary supplier of batteries to the auto industry and eventually for use in buildings. The success of the Model S showed that Tesla could successfully play the auto industry’s game.
But we’re talking about the re-invention of cars for a long century ahead. What Tesla illustrates is that cars, to varying degrees, will be battery-powered transportation devices. (By the way, Tesla is also showing how cars can be sold in retail outlets that bear more resemblance to an Apple store than to today’s auto dealerships.)
Nvidia: Superprocessors On Board
Meanwhile, Nvidia, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker, continues to invest in its car-based technology. As I posted on ReadWrite a year ago, more than four million cars today already have Nvidia’s Tegra chips on board, with another 25 million in the pipeline.
See also: The Supercomputer In Your Driveway
Last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Nvidia showcased an Audi TT using an array of Nvidia processors to run the vehicle’s instrumentation, infotainment and navigation functions. These systems are upgradable, so many of the vehicle’s driver-facing functions can be refreshed throughout the ownership cycle—rather than every five to seven years with a new model.
Last week, Audi also announced that its “Piloted Driving” technology—a significant step toward self-driving—was approved for production. Those assisted driving capabilities are made possible by Nvidia’s Tegra K1 mobile supercomputer.
Google and Here: It’s Really About the Maps
Tesla and Nvidia will continue to re-shape cars into high-tech processor-managed battery-powered mobility machines, but these large transportation devices obviously have wheels and function in space.
Enter Google. As both Slate and IEEE Spectrum recently noted, the key to self-driving cars is the mapping of streets. So, while Google’s funky little self-driving prototype car is the poster child for autonomous vehicles, I have my eyes on all those Google Maps cars already roaming the street capturing images and LIDAR-based data to create a detailed map of roadways.
See also: Why Google’s Driverless Car Is Evil
Even if Google manages to commercialize some type of self-driving car in the next five years, I don’t expect the search giant to compete on safety, comfort and performance. Traditional carmakers are not going away as manufacturers of vehicle platforms. But they will become ever-more reliant on software that situates those conveyances in the real world.
That’s why I put not only Google, but Here—a Nokia company—on this list. You don’t need me to explain the myriad ways that Google is deeply entrenched with maps and other location-based data. But readers might be less familiar with Here, which describes itself as “the largest and most highly trained team of mapmakers on the planet, with over 6,000 people in 55 countries.”
Here maps are already used in four out of five factory-fit car navigation systems. Here customers include Toyota and Garmin. Last week, Here launched its “Predictive Traffic” product—a way to forecast traffic as far as 12 hours into the future based on predictive analytics and cloud computing. Here collects what its calls “probe points,” more than 70 billion of them per month (a 1.3 trillion of them over the past decade) to make this work.
Uber: Moving From Cars to Mobility Webs
You can rightly object to the way Uber attacks journalists or uses personal information, but it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the company and its app on mobility. Uber is the king of on-demand mobility services—what we used to call taxicabs, car rentals and other ways to get around that don’t involve owning a car.
Mobile computing, mapping and disintermediation allow this to happen. But what’s driving it are titanic economic forces such as urban congestion and the rise of the so-called shared economy. For the purposes of this discussion, the critical trend to follow is a fissure in the long-held sacrosanct relationship between driver and car.
For the first time, we can glimpse what mobility might look like if trips—getting from A to B—become the undividable economic and functional unit of mobility, rather than the complicated painful process of buying, fueling, maintaining, financing, insuring and parking an automobile.
You might disagree with my selection of Tesla, Nvidia, Google, Here and Uber as the top five movers and shakers in mobility. That’s cool; tell me in comments who I missed.
The players will change over time, and niche start-ups will have a role. But as we move forward with the Drive series, this will be our focus: the hardware, software and business models used for connected, electric, sensor-controlled computerized map-based networks of mobility.
Lead photo by RyC – Behind The Lens