Things You Never Dreamed a Car Could Do

Starman in space 1 photo
Photo: SpaceX
The automotive industry, just like any industry, needs to evolve and adapt to changing needs. Today’s cars are more advanced than we would have ever imagined a few decades ago.
This seems to be a trend with us humans - we never seem to be good at predicting the future, especially when it comes to how the products we use day to day will evolve. These products (cars included) change based on our needs and these needs are constantly evolving, often unpredictable ways.

At the turn of the third millennium, when one of humanity’s main concerns was Y2K and when we still enjoyed the luxury of what we now refer to as pre-9-11 air travel, cars were still firmly rooted in the 90s. Most cars back then were still mostly analog machines that by today’s standards are so outdated, they feel even older than they actually are.

That was when I got into cars, and observing the changes that have taken hold of the industry over the last two decades, it really is remarkable how much things have improved. No, we’re still not traveling around in flying cars (just yet), but we have dramatically improved the automobile in so may ways, it would be pointless to list them all.

Back then, you would not have expected that cars would be as good as they are today at driving themselves. We’re not quite at the point where you can snooze behind the wheel during a boring one-hour highway commute (although some people seem to think we are), but we’re about two-thirds of the way there.

Your car will safely follow another vehicle on the highway, adapt its speed and maintain a safe distance, and it can even change lanes for you in some cases. Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot function even changes lanes itself in order to guide your car off a desired off-ramp (it can do so with an on-ramp too, should you be looking to get on the highway).

One feature that’s less glamorous than a car driving itself is autonomous emergency braking. No 1990s sci-fi flick made any mention of this, yet it’s now set to become standard on all new cars and bound to save thousands of lives.

We would also not have expected manufacturers to announce that nobody will die in one of their new cars after a certain year. This is a bold and very important claim being made by Volvo - the Swedish automaker has announced that accident-caused deaths will not be a thing in the cars they sell starting in 2020.

Two decades ago you did get to see cars full of TV screens in science fiction movies, but they were bulky (and usually small) CRT screens that never really looked like they fit in. Nowadays, all cars have thin, flat touchscreens and some have renounced any and all analog dials, as well as most physical buttons and switches, relocating their functions in menus accessed via these displays that you have to prod.

Some have even taken this to the extreme - the first example that comes to mind is Tesla with its Model S, but the new king of screen real estate is the Porsche Taycan - it has a whopping 53 inches of screen inside and unlike the aforementioned science fiction movies, it all has a purpose, is nicely integrated and functional.

Cars even talk to one another these days. Mercedes has shown off what it calls Car-to-X communication. It’s a system that essentially allows the car to network with its surroundings, in cities that have smart infrastructure.

It might not sound that exciting, but Mercedes makes it sound so by saying “the networked car looks round the corner and through walls. It warns those coming behind it of hazards and prevents accidents. In other words: It ensures more safety and comfort.”

Bluetooth also changed how we perceive cars. Back before the age of smartphones, cars were merely vehicles to transport us from A to B. Sure, very few of them had integrated phones, but that was about it.

Now you connect your device to the car (no wires required) and it turns into a mobile phone booth, private music room and navigation deck in an instant. And this isn’t a feature reserved for expensive cars - nowadays even the most basic runabouts offer this functionality.

Speaking of navigation, this is another feature present on most new cars, at least as an option. These integrated systems used to be clunky and dim-witted, but over the past few years, most systems have improved dramatically and are now thoroughly usable. If they aren’t, you can always connect your phone and use the navigation on that instead.

Final point on this list has to be the electric car that has usable range and the sheer level of performance EVs offer these days. Before the year 2000, EVs were seen as slow, odd-looking and quick to run out of juice.

But thanks to the lithium-ion battery, such vehicles nowadays offer ranges that would have seemed unfathomable before. Tesla is the range king right now, but competitors are hot on its heels with models that are pretty much on par with what it has to offer.

However, probably the thing nobody anywhere in the world would have been able to predict is that we’d ever send a car into space. Well, it happened, and the world will never be the same.

I wonder what the next few decades bring?
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Editor's note: PS: Since you've made it this far, you should know this article is just a piece of Ten Years in Ten Stories, our word puzzle celebrating the memorable bits of the ending decade.


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