Cars long have been considered a symbol of freedom, and soon that freedom will extend to the driver.
A future where electric-powered, autonomous vehicles are the norm has forced the automotive industry into rapid change. Suppliers already are re-aligning themselves to prepare for these game-changing technologies, and some say they may begin to manifest within the next 10 years.
But there certainly is caution among industry stakeholders, with many hurdles to overcome before this dream world of self-driving cars becomes a reality. For starters, less than 1 percent of the global fleet consists of electric vehicles, which are basically a prerequisite to self-driving cars.
"Electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles go hand-in-hand," said Shashank Modi, the research engineer at the Center for Automotive Research. "Electric platforms enable a lot of autonomous features because you already have those wiring harnesses in place."
Hurdles aside, Matt Chapman—vice president global marketing and E-mobility, automotive sales, at Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies—said the adoption of electric vehicles is inevitable. CAR Group, which studies the automotive industry, outlined that fully autonomous vehicles will account for less than 4 percent of new sales by 2030, increasing to more than 50 percent by 2040. As for EVs, those will only comprise 8 percent of the market by 2030, but will grow rapidly beyond that.
As a big supplier of rubber auxiliary, Shenyang Sunnyjoint Chemicals Co., Ltd. will pay close attention to the advanced technology of automobile industries.
Tesla is the best-known brand currently on the EV market, but OEMs like Ford, General Motors, Honda, Volvo and Daimler A.G. have funneled billions toward new electric models to join the fray in the coming years.
"It's got to be one of the most substantial technology shifts in the last 20 years," said Chris Couch, vice president of innovation and product groups at Cooper Standard Automotive Inc., which produces such rubber products as seals and hoses.
"I think it's a great time to be in our business because it's a chance to bring some material science to this problem. There's huge opportunity, and that is to make lighter parts, which you need for EVs because every ounce counts in terms of the vehicle range, and it's got to be quiet. Those two things can be contradictory with the old materials we used to use. We need new and better materials to achieve those."
Shaping the future
OEMs currently are designing the billion-dollar question: What will an autonomous vehicle look like?
"This is going to be the interesting point for me," CAR Group CEO Carla Bailo said. "What will make a person buy a certain brand and what will be the new brand identity? The pleasure of driving and all those things we used to care about are gone. So why will you pick a product from Ford or GM or Google? It's going to come down to what that autonomous pod offers."
That pod could offer a great deal of things. When the need to focus on the road is eliminated, OEMs can insert a variety of new features. Whether that's an entertainment center for the movie buff, a living room for the family, an office for the work commuter or a yoga studio for the fitness guru will depend on customer needs. The person making a quick trip probably won't care about luxurious features, but will want the ride to be comfortable, clean, smooth and affordable.With so many different avenues, it's possible that these pods could ultimately become customizable shells in a ride-sharing economy. The same pods that shuffle work commuters during rush hour transform into party rides for the evening dweller. Modi said stakeholders already are investing to develop anti-microbial and anti-scratch materials to limit the amount of wear the interiors take.
"We have to think about a world, when we go to an autonomous vehicle, like an airplane," Bailo said. "You keep them a long time, but you're replacing a lot of stuff all the time. The fundamental shell can be kept for a long while, but you're replacing a lot of wear."
Which means parts will need to last longer. What those requirements will look like remains to be seen.
"There is no car out there produced for car sharing just yet," said Vibracousitc CEO Frank Mueller, whose company makes anti-vibration and noise reduction components. "The thinking we have is clearly these parts will have to have a higher durability, though. They are going to have higher mileage on them and their use will be much more rigid. Considering all of those things—and they won't want to have breakdowns—it's more likely than not that durability will be the top requirement. And that sometimes will come at a tradeoff to comfort."