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The Progress Of Automotive Evolution, And What It Teaches Us About Human Nature

The automotive landscape is shifting dramatically with the emergence of Electric and Autonomous vehicles (EVs). It’s a time of upheaval and transformation. Yet, amid this technological revolution, we must question the true impact on our world. Are we witnessing a revolution or simply stagnation with a high-tech veneer? Evaluating the state of this automotive evolution is no easy task, and predicting its course proves equally elusive.

In a technological sense, it’s akin to a frost-covered windshield on a frigid night’s drive. Icy snow pelts the glass, obscuring our vision like stars in hyperspace. We fumble for the defrost button, grateful for its immediate response. As the fog clears in reverse from whence it came, the road reappears, clearer than before. It’s a metaphor for our times.

Our postmodern futurist perspective has blurred our vision of progress. We’ve embraced technology’s rapid advance, often without fully comprehending its consequences. We’re living in a world where dreams materialize before we fully realize their significance.

Technology has pampered us, relentlessly improving our lives. It’s everywhere, continually evolving. Yet, our physical environment lags behind, offering only incremental conveniences.

Our pace of movement hasn’t seen the revolutionary transformation we anticipated. In fact, it often feels like we’re moving slower, trapped in traffic. Cars now boast digital safety nets and emit fewer emissions, but the fundamental driving experience remains largely unchanged.

Recall the futuristic visions of the Syd Meade era, promising high-speed travel and versatile vehicles. Those visions remain largely unrealized, as we’re still confined to the same roadways, often inching along.

However, the potential for progress is boundless. Speed records continue to be shattered, showcasing the symbiotic progress of human and machine in a race against time itself. In some cities, driverless cabs roam the streets. There’s even talk of VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) vehicles – helicopters with car-like attributes. It’s a spectrum of change, ranging from the possible to the practical.

As a designer, futurist, and inventor, I remain a tireless optimist. I believe that by understanding the history of technology, we can create a more widespread and promising future.

But there’s a lingering fear in the mobility space – the fear of misjudging the adoption rate of these innovations. We’re quick to label ourselves as futurist historians with the benefit of hindsight, often referencing the ‘iPhone moment.’ We’ve been conditioned to expect that innovation is not just likely, but inevitable. The reality, though, is far from straightforward.

Over the past decade, automakers have engaged in a technology arms race. Electric vehicles are available at every price point and in every model segment. Certain controlled environments even offer a taste of fully autonomous travel, or at least a copilot system to assist early adopters. Yet, we cannot declare that these technologies have had their ‘iPhone moment,’ where everyone can’t live without them. There’s a gap between what’s possible and what truly makes an impact. New technology doesn’t automatically mean universal adoption. The rate of adoption remains unpredictable.

Cars hold a unique fascination for us. They have faces, curves, and personalities. We name them, feed them, and trust them with our lives. They’re part of our families. We create memories within their climate-controlled, multimedia-filled interiors.

I once posed a question to a room full of engineers: “How many of you have ever named a laptop or a phone?” The response was silence. But when I asked, “How many of you have ever named a car?” Nearly everyone raised their hand. Even those who aren’t car enthusiasts can relate to a time when they regarded a car as a family member or living entity.

Much like the gradual fogging of a windshield, our dependency on technology develops slowly. We’re creatures of habit. Once we embrace something we like, our fixation takes hold. Introduce an iPad to someone for the first time, or a toddler, and it’s akin to a teenager’s first experience with something taboo. Over time, we become more tolerant, using these devices in a variety of social situations with less shock. Without a sense of urgency for automotive change, our perspective becomes skewed. To gain a fresh outlook, we must step back and reevaluate how to align this shift with our culture.

In recent times, we’ve witnessed a resurgence of innovation theater. Perceived quality metrics have soared, and we’ve been inundated with levels of industrial tech craftsmanship not seen since the early nineties’ dream car stage. This time, many of the tricks have transitioned into production. However, our methods of assembly and distribution have changed little over the past century. Even with new manufacturing techniques, cars remain depreciating assets, vulnerable to accelerated obsolescence in the least sustainable way.

One prominent figure in the industry remarked, “Fate loves irony, and pushing for cheap electric transportation is the least sustainable thing we can do when considering long-term solutions.” The automotive sector faces yet another crossroads. The pains of the current shift will resurface as we grapple with the consequences of our choices.

Electric cars aren’t delivering the same transformative shift as the transition from horse-drawn carriages to motorcars. They merely alter the vehicle’s diet, and autonomy replaces the person in the driver’s seat. Cars have become integral to our cities, our goods, and our societies. Fundamental constraints like physics and geography won’t change. We’ll continue to rely on these metal sculptures to transport us efficiently and safely into the foreseeable future. Electric drivetrains alone don’t provide a straightforward solution to the broader challenges of making vehicles adaptable to emerging technology.

As tempting as it is to simplify the issue into a binary choice between electric and traditional cars, the emergence of electric vehicle startups has introduced healthy competition to an industry often tempted by complacency. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) now find themselves in a reactive era. They must maintain existing methodologies while investing billions in new technology, which they view as an ethical obligation, given their substantial contributions to national GDPs.

The electric vehicle and autonomy revolution has become a cultural flashpoint. We must not sacrifice energy independence and freedom of movement for incremental efficiency mandates. True progress cannot be forced; it requires conscious decisions to embrace new technology while providing consumers with a voice in an updatable system that enhances their quality of life.

We live in an era of fast-fashion car design, but I believe this mindset is coming to an end. As a society, we’ve grown wary of the throwaway culture surrounding new products. The next significant change won’t come from a flashy new car model or sustainability pledge. Instead, we must be innovative with materials, explore monetization opportunities in connected cars, and invest in vehicles that remain relevant over time. The shift we need will result from a profound rethink of what a car can be. It’s not just about the design; it’s about the entire business operations model.

Engineering for sustainability doesn’t mean forcing today’s technology into high-priced features or reducing quality to churn out cheaper products. Instead, it’s about being intentional, identifying which aspects of the car should remain constant and which should evolve. Contrary to the prevailing belief that cars are turning into laptops, I forecast that their role will extend far beyond any electronic device in history.

As cars become smarter, more connected, and more complex, their essence will gain significance, as will their cost. The ghost within the sheet metal will force us to reconsider cars as long-term investments rather than disposable commodities. With the advent of autonomy and the increasing rarity of human drivers, our expectations of vehicles will change. Technology will continue to advance, and decades from now, our children will wish we had prepared for future improvements while preserving our current relationship with cars.

In conclusion, we find ourselves at a critical juncture in the automotive industry’s evolution. The rise of Electric and Autonomous vehicles has promised transformation, but we must navigate this shift with a nuanced perspective. Technology’s rapid progress often masks the slower evolution of our physical environment. We must ensure that our advancements align with our culture and enhance our quality of life.

The adoption of new technology is unpredictable, and we must avoid assuming that every innovation will have an iPhone-like impact. While automakers have raced to embrace new technologies, they haven’t necessarily achieved the same level of cultural saturation. Cars hold a unique place in our lives, and their role is far more profound than mere transportation.

The automotive industry has experienced a resurgence of innovation theater, but true progress goes beyond flashy designs and gimmicks. Sustainability requires us to be creative with materials, explore new monetization strategies, and invest in vehicles that remain relevant in an ever-changing world.

Cars are not becoming laptops; their significance will surpass that of any electronic device. They will become long-term investments, designed to integrate seamlessly into future transportation systems while honoring our current relationship with them. As we navigate this transformation, let’s remember that true progress is not about forcing change but making conscious decisions that enhance our quality of life and preserve our cultural connection with cars.

Christian Delise, a prominent figure in the automotive world, began his journey studying consumer psychology and later honed his skills in Industrial Transportation Design.

Since 2010, he’s been involved in advanced design roles at major companies like Toyota, Volkswagen, Porsche and Lamborghini and others, while also founding two companies and earning seven patents. Christian’s latest venture, Delise Automotive, embodies his advocacy for Regenerative Product Modality (RPM), driving the automotive industry toward a circular future.

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