It’s very likely that the cars we drive in 2025 won’t feel anything like those we use today. Over the next few years, all the technological, legal, and societal factors required for viable self-driving cars are likely to fall into place. By 2025, autonomous vehicles may very well be the norm in many cities and highways around the world.*
As the duty for driving shifts from humans to computers, our shared definition of what a car is will undergo a radical transformation. When you think about it, the modern automobile still hews closely to a design template set by the Ford Model T: four wheels, a gasoline engine, some forward-facing seats, and a steering wheel for the driver. By 2025 that monolithic automotive design paradigm will fork to create multiple new branches on the family tree, each representing a new species of car. Some will be fully robotic, others will not. Some will be powered by batteries or fuel cells. Some will be for active driving, but most will be designed passive ridership.
So self-driving cars present a fork in the road, and we need to take it. Here’s the design opportunity: if we proceed thoughtfully and with some deliberation, this branching of the automotive tree could increase our access to high-quality mobility while making it a better experience, too.
What would this branching look like? Former BMW design chief Chris Bangle can help here. In a design conversation that he and I shared a few years ago, he articulated a nuanced distinction between “cars” and “auto-mobiles”. A “car” is an emotionally evocative machine such as the Jaguar E-Type. An “auto-mobile” serves up utilitarian transportation with a minimum of fuss, such as the anonymous (but competent) sedan I rented at the airport last week. Whether or not it’s a “car” or an “auto-mobile” that gets created depends on the point-of-view of its designers.
To further explore the idea of branching the car, let’s explore the quadrants created when we overlay two axes: on the horizontal, the point-of-view behind a car’s design, and on the vertical the degree to which it can drive autonomously:
Here’s a brief discussion of what’s happening in each of these four quadrants:
Quadrant One: Human + Utilitarian
post-fork opportunity: None. Auto-mobiles in this category will eventually cease to exist as human drivers become uneconomical for routine activities.
examples: present-day taxis, UPS trucks
Quadrant Two: Self-Driving + Utilitarian
post-fork opportunity: Big gains for the likes of UPS and Uber, as robotic delivery auto-mobiles carry goods with higher levels of efficiency and utilization. Also, a better commuter experience: individual passenger auto-mobile pods become akin to public transportation, with shared or societal ownership.
examples: Cody the Mule, Google self-driving car prototypes
Quadrant Three: Self-Driving + Emotional
post-fork opportunity: The $100,000,000,000 question: what exactly is a car that’s as fabulous as a Mandarin Oriental lobby but willing to drive us anywhere we want to go? Massive innovation opportunities to be had here—we can’t yet imagine the experiences created by these types of cars.
examples: None extant today, though the remarkable Porsche Mission E concept provides a small glimpse of this future. Given their highly emotive designs, I wouldn’t be surprised if people want to own (or lease) these living rooms on wheels.
Quadrant Four: Human + Emotional
post-fork opportunity: Internal Combustion-powered cars as the new Patek Philippe watch—more complex and less capable than their solid-state cousins, but a visceral thrill as well as a status symbol for those who choose to display their money this way. The recent run-up in prices of vintage Porsches is evidence that non-autonomous cars with manual transmissions and gas motors are already being priced in anticipation of this scenario—the thrill of driving a complex machine fast will become a rarefied luxury experience. Here cars really will be like horses, a pastime of enthusiasts, with dedicated spaces for frolicking. Might regulations evolve to exempt future Quadrant 4 designs from mainstream crash tests and insurance guidelines? Could be.
examples: a Ferrari 250 GT SWB, the Goodwood Revival
So when this happens, we may have an automotive tree with three distinct branches: Quadrants 2, 3, and 4. Once we fork the car, Quadrant 1 ceases to be a typology of car you’d see on the street. The emergence of the other three automotive species has interesting implications for purveyors and consumers of mobility in 2025.
Today’s automakers still market a dream that smells like Quadrant 4, but as a viable business proposition, this market will radically contract. Simply put, many of us will cease to buy cars that we ever expect to drive. Current auto manufacturers could, however, take their marketing and design savvy and go create emotionally rich mobility experiences for Quadrant 3, and we may buy those instead. This isn’t to say that Quadrant 4 won’t be a lucrative place to do business, but it may the sole hunting grounds of storied marques the likes of Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Lotus, whose bonafides were established in the heroic age of car racing.
There’s enormous value to be claimed by new entrants into this forked mobility market. If Quadrant 3 is about the experience you have riding in your car (as opposed to driving it), brands such as Virgin and Disney now have a right to play as purveyors of mobility. Because it’s difficult to teach elephants new dance steps, it may be easier for a customer experience-focused brand like Apple to be successful in this quadrant than to take a car company and make it act as a service or software creator would. And with their emphasis on achieving efficiencies of scope and scale through the control of comprehensive data sets, organizations such as Amazon and Alibaba could dominate the landscape of Quadrant 2.
With change comes great opportunity. It’s high time to branch the car, and to start creating exciting new directions for the future.
* It could very well take longer than a decade for all the pieces of the puzzle to get sorted out, so I’m using 2025 here just for the sake of argument. A decade implies two or three product cycles for the auto industry, but is a lifetime when it comes to digital devices, which live on an accelerated schedule dictated by Moore’s Law. So while it’s not wise to predict the exact timing of the changes we’ll see in the automotive landscape, the shifts I describe above do seem inevitable. Plus, the year 2025 makes for a headline that rhymes.
Many thanks to Piper Loyd for creating the 2×2 graphic above.