Along with the rest of the world, the automobile industry is facing an era of unprecedented change. The convergence of factors such as technological advancements in computing and automation, along with the global shift towards sustainable practices and clean energy, is taking the world of car making into new frontiers.

“Global executives may not like the influences they so witheringly call ‘disruptors’ — everything from environmental concerns to AI processing power that can cope with autonomous driving — but these forces are pulling car manufacturers in half-a-dozen different directions,” John McIlroy, deputy editor of Auto Express and Carbuyer, wrote for CNN Style.

Going electric

One such force is the electric car movement, a force that is growing in momentum year by year. The top names in the business are discovering new ways to incorporate the latest battery technology into their cars, unlocking an entirely new dimension for car design as large and encumbering combustion engines get removed.

Volkswagen’s I.D. concept is another step towards making this common. The production version of the I.D., which is expected to make a public debut within the year, is said to be about the same length as the company’s Golf hatchback but offer the same cabin space as the larger Passat saloon.

Mercedes-Benz’s Concept EQ will be the first of a new family of all-electric vehicles from the German manufacturer. Much like the Volkswagen  I.D., the EQ will be based on a chassis that’s been designed from the ground up to run on electricity alone.

“This, in turn, will bring considerable changes in technology and design. There is a school of thought that says eco-cars have to focus entirely on aerodynamics, slipping as efficiently as possible through the air to eke every mile out of the electric (or petrol-electric) powertrain. That’s why, for example, the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq have such similar side profiles.” Mr. McIlroy wrote.

“But from this point on, there’s going to be such diversification in the world of electric vehicles that car manufacturers will be battling to grab their own slice of the market — and that means we’ll see big jumps in design.”

High-tech cockpits 

Since the introduction of dynamic displays, automobile cabins are increasingly becoming like miniature smart homes, replete with entertainment facilities and sophisticated interfaces to fulfill every driver’s and passenger’s needs.

“With brands putting increasing amounts of functionality through touchscreens, we’re likely to see fewer switches,” Mr. McIlroy wrote.

“In many cases, manufacturers will do away with physical instrument gauges completely in favor of high-res displays. This tech isn’t exactly new, but the popularity of cars that have adopted it is likely to push rivals into following suit over the next two years.”

Car innovation firm Harman International Industries has recently unveiled a multi-screen arrangement in a modified Maserati, showcasing the full potential of today’s QLED display technology. Mercedes-Benz meanwhile launched its A-Class concept, which seeks to illustrate the removal of analogue screens and physical switches, and the use of high-resolution displays as their replacement.

The push for autonomy

Compared to automotive battery and display technology, autonomous tech has been seeing slow progress. With electric cars, there is not much in the form of protest regarding their manufacturers’ efforts to penetrate the mainstream market. In fact, in the more environmentally conscious countries, they are even encouraged.

Autonomous vehicles are another thing. With their existence comes the inherent need to upend driving legislation and the lingering social problem of human drivers who will be put out of a job.

However, that’s no reason to stop car designers from theorizing and experimenting with how the absence of human drivers will affect cars of the future, whenever that future comes. 

“Expect to see concept cars featuring revised seating positions, for example, allowing occupants to turn around and talk to each other,” Mr. McIlroy wrote.

“Multiple displays — even those in the door panels — will encourage interaction with everything from social media to streamed entertainment. And we’re likely to see further experimentation with steering wheels — what they do when the car is doing the driving, and, perhaps more significantly, how the vehicle can safely hand back control to the driver when needed.”

Many of such technology probably will not affect the automotive market in the short term. But the efforts of manufacturers like Audi, who are experimenting with autonomy with its A8 model, prove that it can be done. The first stones are cast, and it is only a matter of time before the future arrives in force. — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran