The word “disruptive” by itself can signal something that is unsettling. When put in the context of automotive technologies, it points to positive changes that are innovative and wholly useful for manufacturers and consumers alike. The auto industry is constantly changing and those manufacturers that lead or closely follow will succeed. Those that do not will go out of business. Consumers ultimately cast their votes for innovation by buying vehicles equipped with disruptive technologies.
1. Hybrid and Vehicle Electrification
Honda and Toyota were the first mass producers of hybrid vehicles. The Honda Insight beat the Toyota Prius to the US market in the late 1990s by six months, but “Prius” is synonymous with hybrid while the Insight is merely a bit player. Toyota sells more hybrids than all other manufacturers combined.
Hybrid technology is disruptive as it causes all other manufacturers to explore various forms of vehicle electrification including pure electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Consumers have benefited as fuel consumption is down, hybrid cars run cleaner, and further advances in vehicle electrification continue apace.
Had Toyota not successfully poured billions of dollars into proving that hybrid technology works, the fuel-hungry and polluting internal combustion engine might have remained unchallenged.
2. Rear View Monitors and Safety Cameras
Airbags were first used in cars as early as the 1970s, but manufacturer resistance kept this important safety feature from becoming mandatory until the late 1990s. Today, all passenger vehicles including light-duty trucks must have both driver’s side and right passenger-side airbags.
Rearview monitors are not required although the safety benefit of having a screen that displays what goes on behind your vehicle can be enormously comforting to drivers and pedestrians alike. More than 200 people are killed and thousands are injured annually because of back-over accidents. The federal government has mandated rearview cameras but has delayed the requirement.
Meanwhile, manufacturers are equipping many cars with the technology as standard or optional equipment. Some manufacturers, such as Nissan are providing multiple cameras including those that offer a bird’s eye view of the car. With related sonar technology, an image of the car and everything that surrounds it is displayed on a dashboard monitor for driver review.
3. Automotive Infotainment Systems
The word “infotainment” was first used in 1980 according to Merriam-Webster. Infotainment is a blend of two words: information and entertainment. In particular, this describes the combined audio and information systems that are part of today’s vehicles. Ford introduced its SYNC system in 2007, a partnership between the automaker and Microsoft. It was one of the first products to operate Bluetooth-enabled devices and digital media players by voice command.
Numerous updates in the technology and competing manufacturers jumping in with their own infotainment systems has revolutionized the industry. The challenge for manufacturers is to make the technology easy enough to understand without distracting the driver. Moreover, car owners are no longer restricted to AM and FM stations or to an XM radio subscription and a CD player.
These days, infotainment systems provide access to Internet radio. Voice commands are still popular, but touchscreen access and easily understood buttons and switches are important.
4. Autonomous Vehicles
Imagine traveling from New York to Chicago while you are asleep. On a bus, train, or an airplane this is possible, but soon you may be able to open your car door, hop in the back seat and take off without a driver behind the wheel. Autonomous driving may seem far-fetched, but it has been widely tested by Google and many others. Radio-controlled cars have been tested for nearly a century and in 2010 a driverless Audi TT successfully climbed Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Self-driving vehicles may become the most disruptive technology of our time. It could yield laws that require non-autonomous vehicles to be retrofitted accordingly or perhaps scrapped or limited to select roads. Self-driving cars can greatly reduce accidents, perhaps reducing the 30,000 plus annual vehicle deaths to a small number.
There are legal and practical challenges to changing the entire transportation infrastructure to control traffic light signals, where cars can “talk” with each other on the road, and by embedding sensors and making use of GPS, Wi-Fi, and other technologies to make it happen.
Always Disruptive Technology
Change is a part of life and many of us have witnessed profound changes in our lifetimes. The auto industry will adapt as manufacturers, suppliers, and technology leaders join forces to advance disruptive technologies that will change the way that we drive.