In the next 25 years, what it means to build, own, or simply drive a car will have fundamentally changed. This will become a matter of necessity and the result of innovation.
When Henry Ford founded the company bearing his name in 1903, he saw the car as a means of providing freedom of mobility to people around the world. But over a hundred years later, a number of emerging trends threaten that promise of freedom.
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We already see it happening. Long commutes and traffic jams once associated with older, established cities such as London, New York or Tokyo are spreading throughout the world's emerging economies. What became known as the "longest traffic jam ever" — a nearly two-week, 60-plus mile gridlock — took place a few years ago, not in a huge Western metropolis, but in the northern China province of Hebei.
As the world's population grows and prosperity expands, the number of vehicles on the road could double to two billion or more by 2050. At the same time, it is expected that more than 50 percent of the world's population will be living in cities. That means more congestion, longer commutes and a growing thirst for fuel, unless we act now.
With these trends, it is clear that our current approach to transportation is not sustainable. What is required is an approach that sees the car not as an individual vehicle, but as part of a broader transportation network. Cars in the future must become smarter and fully integrated into the transportation ecosystem.
Cars will talk to each other and the world around them to make driving both safer and more efficient. "Vehicle-to-vehicle" and "vehicle-to-infrastructure" connectivity will become commonplace. Manufacturers will collaborate with traffic experts and city planners so that real-time vehicle data can improve the entire transportation network by managing energy consumption and identify and solving issues as they are developing.
Connectivity will become the backbone of transportation system. The most profound changes may come from the development of a truly intelligent car — vehicles with increasing levels of knowledge about the driver and driving conditions, from the road itself to traffic patterns to even the weather. A vehicle equipped with these features will be able to use that information to provide drivers a level of assistance, convenience and safety far beyond current expectations.
As these innovations take hold, the automobile manufacturer will become more of a personal mobility company, constantly innovating how vehicles interact with the world around them. We are seeing the first signs of this transformation right now, in car features such as wireless connectivity, limited autonomous driving and parking assistance.
With more cars on the road, energy consumption and C02 emissions will drive demand for even more efficiencies and change how cars are made. The use of aluminum, high-strength steel and even carbon fiber, currently found in race cars and million dollar exotic vehicles, will find their way into mainstream production. These new materials will complement efforts to develop even cleaner powertrains. Some experts see this one area alone as a $130 billion opportunity for the automotive industry. It is a future of both challenge and opportunity.
What society once called vehicle "ownership" will be redefined as vehicle "access." Programs such as Lyft, Uber and Zipcar already are enabling alternative ways to get from Point A to Point B. Combine software (an app) with hardware (a vehicle) and you quickly expand the transportation options available to customers.
Finally, the act of driving itself will change. "Autonomous driving," vehicles that drive themselves, will be commonly used in certain situations. As the technology is developed, autonomous driving could provide driving opportunities for the physically challenged or enable the elderly to continue driving longer. This will be vital as many nations experience an aging population.
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Across the entire industry, the past 25 years have seen tremendous innovation in areas such as engine performance, fuel economy and safety features. The decades to come, however, will see an even greater transformation of our industry in these areas, as well as in connectivity and transportation management. If we embrace both the need and opportunity to change, we will ensure that my great-grandfather's vision of opening the highways for all mankind remains alive and well for generations to come.
Commentary by William Clay Ford, Jr., executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company. He has been on the board since 1988 and chairman since 1999. He also served as CEO of Ford from 2001 to 2006.