History teaches us that technological transformation rarely advances smoothly. It advances in bursts. In revolutions.
Think about telecommunications, which progressed from telegraph to telephone, from copper wires to fiber optics, from wireless to satellite, from analog to digital. Or photography, which went from daguerreotypes to glass plates to film to digital, not to mention black-and-white to color. Or aviation, which leapt from blimps to biplanes, from propellers to jets to rockets.
The pattern holds for virtually every form of technology, and each burst opens the door to new innovations that revolutionize industries and, sometimes, society itself.
Today, we’re at the start of this kind of revolution in the auto industry. It is centered on the push to develop cleaner, safer, more energy-efficient vehicles for a rapidly expanding global auto market. And it is driven by the fact that limited petroleum supplies and soaring global energy demand mean that we can no longer rely on oil to supply 96 percent of the world’s automotive energy requirements.
We’re moving from an industry that, for just over 100 years, has been based on vehicles that are mechanically driven and petroleum-fueled to ones that will eventually be driven and fueled by a number of advanced technologies and energy sources – most notably, electricity itself.
We’re at the start of one of the innovative revolutions that changes societies, and it’s coming faster than many think. It will be as momentous as the transition from horses to horsepower. Best of all, it gives us the opportunity to make the automobile more exciting, more functional, and more fun to drive than ever before.
Electrification of the automobile is already enabling dozens of changes in vehicle design and performance, most notably the development of new and advanced powertrains that will one day remove the automobile from the environmental equation.
New powertrains are leading to the development of advanced hybrid vehicles, extended-range electric vehicles like the revolutionary Chevrolet Volt and recently announced Cadillac ELR, and new all-electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Spark EV coming in 2013.
Breakthrough battery technologies are allowing General Motors and other automakers to build electric vehicles with better performance, faster recharging times, longer ranges, and greater versatility and functionality than ever before. And as the electric storage capacity of batteries continues to grow, cars will increasingly be put to use even when no one is driving them. For example, parked in your garage, your electric vehicle will be able to power your home during power outages.
But electrification of the automobile goes well beyond powertrains. Vehicles are increasingly being controlled electronically too, with drive-by-wire technology similar to that in modern aircraft. Drive-by-wire replaces bulky mechanical controls with electronic ones. It allows for things like electronically actuated braking, which shortens stopping distances, or electronically controlled steering, which offers more responsive handling. It means your internal combustion engine will one day be replaced by smaller, more efficient electric motors – and in some cases, one on each wheel.
Electrification is also leading to rapid advances in vehicle safety and infotainment – everything from collision warning and avoidance systems to advanced navigation and real-time traffic information. GM’s industry-leading OnStar system already provides customers with in-vehicle communications, hands-free calling, remote diagnostics, turn-by-turn navigation, stolen-vehicle recovery tools, and much more.
The Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, which debuted on the new Cadillac XTS this past spring, is a great example of where this technology is headed. CUE combines a full suite of infotainment, navigation and communication tools with the intuitive touch-screen controls of smartphones and tablets to provide a safe and fully connected driving experience.
Slideshow: The Automotive E-volution
And speaking of connected, future vehicles will increasingly be connected not only with their occupants but also with other vehicles and even with the highways they travel. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications will combine with global positioning technology and advanced aviation-style transponders to minimize traffic congestion, reduce travel time, and virtually eliminate collisions.
And since drivers often remain within close proximity of their parked cars, we may one day have the option of being wirelessly tethered to our vehicles, so that we can use its information-processing capability and fast connection to a global computing grid.
Three years ago GM developed a two-wheeled concept vehicle that demonstrates some of the technologies I’ve outlined here. It’s called the Electric Networked Vehicle, or EN-V.
As its name suggests, EN-V is electric – it runs on lithium-ion batteries – and it is networked, meaning it is wirelessly connected to other vehicles on the road. EN-V is also autonomous, meaning it has advanced sensors and drive-by-wire technology that allow it to park itself, retrieve itself, and one day even drive itself down the road.
EN-V looks like nothing else on the road today, which is also a consequence of electrification. Electronic controls are lighter and have significantly fewer moving parts than mechanical controls, so they allow automakers to rethink the way we engineer and design automobiles. And EN-V is just a hint of what’s to come.
There was a time when cars not only moved people to their destination, they were the destination – the latest technology, the favorite possession, the beautiful machine that people were proud to own and display. I believe we are headed there again. Tomorrow’s vehicles will be cleaner, safer, and more energy-efficient in every way. They will be more exciting, more functional, and more fun to drive than ever before. At GM we believe the future of the automobile is extraordinarily bright, and we are working hard to get you there today.
Mary Barra is chief executive officer of General Motors.