Key Words of 2015: Autonomous, (Alternative) Fuel, Connectivity

2014 was a remarkable year for automotive sales and futuristic innovations, but carmakers are looking to kick things up another notch in the coming year. Buzzwords for this year are similar to last year, but what will be most interesting is to see the divergence of thinking and reactions by automakers in regards to three big topics: autonomous vehicle features, alternative fuel integration and reaction to petrol pricing, and enhanced connectivity technology.

Anyone with a fairly diverse Twitter account has seen some post about a new autonomous vehicle being showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the past couple days. The dazzling Audi A7 that drove hundreds of miles only to come onstage at the touch of a wristwatch at the show was nothing short of incredible, and the Mercedes pod-like car undoubtedly drew gasps and reactionary applause. In 2015, the word “autonomous” will begin to take on many different meanings depending on the company you talk to. To Toyota, giving the driver complete control with the most advanced warning systems and intelligent driving capabilities is paramount, while Google and to some extent Mercedes, are looking to eliminate driver control in its entirety. Here are some questions that will dominate the conversation over autonomous technology: Do people actually want or trust completely autonomous cars? Is there a way to eliminate a majority of accidents while keeping humans as the primary decision makers? Can we even make a perfectly safe autonomous contraption? On a more immediate basis, most of the conversation will be driven by existing autonomous features such as smart cruise control, valet automatic parking, and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) informatics. However this discussion plays out this year, expect to hear die-hard critics and boosters of the technology that echo the same type of heated discussion present in the second big topic of the year.

While alternative fuels, specifically hydrogen fuel cell (FCV) and electric cars, have been debated for many years, this year carmakers are facing a mostly-unforeseen wrench thrown into the equation: what the hell do we do with all these fuel efficient and alternative fuel vehicles now that gas prices are so low? If you’re Tesla, the answer is nothing, mainly because no one buying an $80,000 car is really that worried about gas prices in the first place. But if you’re GM or Toyota or Ford who relies on customers purchasing these fuel efficient vehicles in order to meet increasingly-stringent EPA fuel economy standards, this question is daunting. The question this year, or at least for a good part of this year for these companies will be: how do we get people to still buy these fuel efficient cars even though they aren’t incentivized to do so like they were six months ago?

Finally, connectivity might be the vaguest of the three topics to continue to be talked about this year, but this is the year that automakers will either fail or succeed with flying colors. The much-anticipated release of Apple’s CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink (a weird compromise for those who for some reason have chosen neither an iPhone or Android phone), will rule the conversation as many new models will finally become available with these technologies. Essentially, automakers have realized they make lousy tech companies, so instead are looking to form their infotainment centers into a nicer, bigger iPhone or Android, with the same functionalities of apps and voice recognition that everyone has come to expect. Those companies who do it right this year will be rewarded with younger buyers being interested in their cars as performance and handling become less important than how fast one can find the nearest Starbucks.

All signs point to another good year in terms of sales for car companies, but a changing landscape in terms of macroeconomic commodity pricing, an increasing reliance on tech companies to provide competitive advantages to automakers, and a public debate as to how far we plan to take futuristics autonomous cars will prove a challenging but nonetheless unprecedentedly-colorful automotive period.

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