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Plastic Cars? What Vehicles of the Future Will Look Like

The 2007 Hyundai crossover coupe was developed in conjunction with GE Plastics and is made out of environmentally sensitive materials including a panoramic windshield made of Lexan, a type of plastic.The 2007 Hyundai crossover coupe was developed in conjunction with GE Plastics and is made out of environmentally sensitive materials including a panoramic windshield made of Lexan, a type of plastic.
The 2007 Hyundai crossover coupe was developed in conjunction with GE Plastics and is made out of environmentally sensitive materials including a panoramic windshield made of Lexan, a type of plastic. Cars of the future will be on display at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance 2018 show. Car Culture/Getty Images

The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is considered the world’s most prestigious car show, bringing together the best collector cars from around the globe each August to be judged on their authenticity, function, history, and style. But the show isn’t just about classic cars anymore. In recent years, leading auto companies have come to showcase the latest in transportation, providing a sneak preview of the radical change that the automotive landscape is facing from the forces of electrification, autonomy, connectivity, and shared mobility.

Furthermore, with luxury cars as the most forward-thinking segment of the auto industry, the latest innovations are shown at Pebble Beach as they make their way to the rest of the market. Most luxury carmakers have embraced electrification and autonomy, with tight timelines to bring these innovations to market or extend today’s capabilities.

When it comes to the cars of the future—and especially those that will be shown at Pebble Beach in the next 20, 30, or even 50 years—changes won’t just be under the hood; the way cars look and how we interact with them is being forever altered.

The new look

From a design perspective, electric and autonomous technologies will transform the look of passenger vehicles. In the short term, electric vehicles, or EVs, will change how companies convey their brand identity. Luxury brands such as BMW—with its iconic kidney grill—won’t need these features for engine cooling, so they will introduce new design elements to convey the vehicle’s brand and power to buyers.

Specific to grills, designers are free to construct facsimiles or do away with them entirely, and they can even implement advanced, interactive LED displays in their place that can communicate with the outside world. For instance, a vehicle can use color coding or text when it’s in fully autonomous mode to convey this to drivers and pedestrians. In a ride-hailing scenario, the LED grill can display a QR code so the rider can quickly confirm they’re entering the correct car.

From a long-term perspective, when every car on the road is fully autonomous, accidents will be significantly reduced and possibly even eliminated, making it possible to explore vehicles built with lighter and less expensive materials, like fiber-reinforced plastic. Such advancements would also dramatically improve vehicles’ environmental impact by reducing the resources and fuel necessary for travel. Designers would then be able to focus more on passenger comfort and versatility, which would translate to more cabin space and open up endless options for customizing vehicle interiors. We could someday see autonomous cars built with interiors similar to those in private aircraft, providing executives with mobile offices featuring desks, screens, and meeting spaces.

In-car robot assistant

The car is also about to become a smartphone on wheels, complete with personalized artificial intelligence assistants supported by 5G connectivity. Similar to how mobile calls switch to Bluetooth in your car today, in-vehicle AI assistants will be able to automatically move an ongoing mobile video conference to a vehicle’s screen without interruption. By referencing a user’s calendar and past behavior, assistants will also be able to automatically plan a driver’s ride home, with stops along the way, once they enter the vehicle.

Cars by subscription

Auto brands will increasingly offer subscriptions so consumers can access vehicles on demand. Consumers today are already starting to buy into subscription packages from major automakers that offer on-demand access to different vehicle models. In addition, startups like Canvas and Flexdrive have made renting and leasing as easy as clicking through an app.

Customers will create profiles with companies that contain the user’s vehicle preferences, and their subscription cars will be prepared with customized seating positions, interior temperatures, and entertainment options.

Eventually these preferences will become automated as well. Automakers are already taking notes on how companies like Netflix and Amazon use past viewing behavior to offer suggestions for new content. Car companies offering subscriptions will recommend different vehicle models or suggest whether to take a sedan or SUV based on your trip itinerary. And at some point, look for self-driving fleets to join the subscription landscape.

There will come a day in the future when the well-heeled attendees of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance arrive in luxurious autonomous fleet vehicles to view electric and autonomous cars made in decades past. They might marvel at early EVs that retained a grill or wonder how the first autonomous vehicles navigated alongside human drivers. But regardless, their love and appreciation for the automobile will endure.

Carsten Breitfeld is the CEO and co-founder of BYTON.