2020: Cars of the Future

Ransom Riggs

Looks like the cars from Blade Runner are never going to happen -- or not anytime soon, anyway. IBM's Institute for Business Value undertook a massive survey of automotive experts from all over the world in order to discover the shape of things to come, and the results are green: among other findings, it's believed that all new cars will be hybrids by 2020. The industry may well be unrecognizably different in just over a decade, and the reasons for this are many:

Vehicles will become more intelligent. "Electronics will bring new capabilities to every part of the vehicle. New technologies will provide for greater assistance in navigation, enhanced driver information about the vehicle, its environment and vehicle connectivity." (I'm not sure what "vehicle connectivity" means, but so far I'm imagining Kit from Knight Rider.)

Corporate social responsibility becomes a buying factor. "Consumers will be more empowered and sophisticated. They will also become increasingly watchful and wary about how companies perform outside the manufacturing and distribution processes. Corporate social responsibility will become markedly more important to the consumer." I hope so -- but I'm a bit more skeptical of this one.

Sustainability hits the bottom line. "The impact of external forces on the industry will continue to be significant, but the leading influencers will be radically different from those that affect the industry today. Technology will continue lead, but other issues, such as sustainability, will migrate to near the top of the list."

Among the more specific (and relevant) predictions they trot out, one of the most interesting is about ethanol: food-based ethanol will fade away, they believe, thanks in part to rising food costs and the "chorus of vocal dissent" which already exists regarding its use. In its place, cellulosic and other waste-based ethanols will come into play more heavily (I recently blogged about a Japanese airplane that's partly garbage-fueled); the report predicts "widespread acceptance" of these kinds of next-gen fuels.

As for hybrids, the experts say that "battery technology will be ubiquitous" and that "all new vehicles in 2020 will have some level of hybridization." Hydrogen cars will be out there, but not quite as ubiquitous: "even optimistic projections put only a small fraction of vehicle production migrating to this technology (less than 1 percent of vehicles in the United States)."

Another interesting prediction is that rather than having just one car for all our transpo needs, the consumer will shift toward owning a diverse "garage" of vehicles. Which is to say, "lifestyle changes will allow access to luxury or larger vehicles during the weekends, as an example, while a small, efficient vehicle will suffice for daily commuting needs." (Are they saying we'll all be rich?!)

So there you have it -- smaller, greener, cleaner, and a big honkin' truck for weekends at the lake. How does that sound to everyone?