Almost everyone wishes they could see into the future. But businesses like large car companies have a lot riding on making accurate predictions about what's coming down the road. And almost everyone in the automotive business realizes that the car as personal transportation is rapidly changing, due in large part to technology ranging from cloud connectivity to autonomous driving.
At a "Futurewatch" event earlier this week at its Research and Development Center in Silicon Valley, Mercedes-Benz gave the media a look into its telescope, and even went as far as stating that the auto industry will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the last 50. Various experts from the automaker went on to detail areas—including demographic trends and generational shifts, wearable technology, and the Internet of Things, as well as alternative powertrains—in which we'll see these transformations occur.
One of the most profound changes that futurists have predicted will affect the auto industry isn't technological but sociological. The buzz has been that people, and especially Gen Y, are abandoning the suburbs for the cities—and car ownership along with it. It's also generally assumed that the biggest bursts of population growth will come from countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China. But Mercedes-Benz presented U.S. census statics that show that the suburbs are becoming more, not less, populated, while city centers are seeing fewer and fewer people living there.
The automaker also noted that the U.S. population is projected to increase by 25 million between 2010 and 2025 among people over the age of 25, and that by 2050 the U.S. will have added more people than any major country except India—and have a larger population than Italy, Germany, Russia, and Japan combined. This translates into a growing market for cars to get all these folks between the 'burbs and the city and everywhere in between.
Mercedes-Benz also added that people in the U.S. have more children than most other developed nations, and that dog ownership is among the highest in the world. So drivers in this country need bigger vehicles to haul their kids and dogs and all their stuff.
Demographic Changes The tech-savvy Gen Y buyers that will be flooding into the car market in the coming decade will also expect their vehicles to be just as connected and smart as their portable electronics and other devices. To accommodate these "digital natives," Mercedes-Benz foresees vehicles becoming one of what it called the "50 billion connected things" that seamlessly integrate a driver's digital life.
Imagine that your smartwatch tells your connected car that you have an appointment at 8 o'clock on a chilly winter morning, so that the engine is started and the interior is toasty warm by 7:55am. Your route is already programed into the navigation system based on the address in your calendar, and it's also optimized based on real-time traffic info. And a message is also sent to your neighborhood coffee shop so that your latte is ready when you stop on the way.
And you'll be able drink it with one hand and munch a doughnut with the other, and also catch up on email along the way, since your car will drive itself. Mercedes-Benz showed a video (below) of the 60-plus-mile trip its autonomous S500 Intelligent Drive research vehicle took from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany last September. The vehicle was able to operate on its own not only on highways, but also through narrow urban streets crowded with traffic, pedestrians and bicycles.
While Mercedes-Benz wouldn't say when it will offer fully autonomous vehicles for sale, the company acknowledged that it's coming sooner than anyone ever imagined. Certainly within the 10-year time frame that it sees all this rapid change taking place.
But with Mercedes-Benz predicting more people and cars on the road—which will lead to more traffic—hopefully its vision of self-driving, connected cars will also help ease congestion, as well as make driving less dangerous and more fuel efficient. And that's something to look forward to.